Making Textbooks Affordable

November 13, 2009 | Chats with the University Dean

College textbooks can put a great strain on a student’s budget. A recent government report found that textbook prices are rising at an average of 6 percent a year, about twice the inflation rate, and account for a student’s biggest expense after tuition. CUNY is looking for ways to make textbooks more affordable. In September, University Librarian Curtis Kendrick spoke at a hearing of the New York City Council’s Higher Education Committee, chaired by Councilman Charles Barron, about the escalating cost of textbooks and ways of driving down costs in a down economy and in the future.

IG: How did textbooks get to be so expensive?
CK: The $10 billion U.S. textbook industry is dominated by three firms “Pearson, Wiley, Cengage” that have 60% market share. This leaves little room for competitive pricing. There’s also the textbook industry practice of selling to customers”the students”who are not the ones making the book selections. In what critics call a “broken market,” the faculty makes the selections, usually with little regard to the cost. Students typically spend from $700 to $1,100 a year on textbooks. As a percentage of tuition, that’s 22% of tuition at CUNY’s senior colleges, and higher at our community colleges.
IG: The costs are a major issue for CUNY students?
CK: Yes, because about two out of five CUNY students come from families with household incomes of less than $20,000. The university is particularly sensitive to the barrier of rising textbook prices.
IG: What other factors drive up textbook prices?
CK: There’s a process called “bundling,” in which publishers include supplemental materials such as one-use CDs and workbooks with the textbook. Bundling also lets publishers justify creating new editions and inhibits sales of used textbooks.
IG: I’ve heard that the price of the same textbook can vary around the world. Is that true?
CK: Yes, that’s what’s known as differential pricing. The same textbook sold overseas may cost only a fraction of what it’s charged here in the United States. And publishers have begun to limit the consumers’ ability to tap into this global market.
IG: What is being done to curb these practices?
CK: Growing concern over textbook costs has spurred legislation to make textbooks more affordable. The New York State Textbook Access Act of 2008, for example, requires colleges to encourage faculty to place their book orders early so that bookstores can buy textbooks in used or digital formats. And the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act, which takes effect next summer, requires publishers to unbundle textbooks and disclose online ISBN and retail price information to colleges.
IG: Has the Internet changed the dynamics of the textbook market?
CK: Yes, it has. As we see, both of these pieces of legislation recognize the potential of the Internet to correct the informational asymmetries in the market that contribute to students paying more for books. The Internet and other technologies are reshaping the market in other ways that are highly beneficial to students.
IG: In which ways?
CK: Over the past five years a new movement has started to take shape in higher education. It’s called “open access” and refers to high-quality books and other scholarly materials made available over the Internet and at no cost. The development of open-access textbooks has been slow, but this is changing. Rice University and the Foothill-De Anza Community College District in California are students with free access to online textbooks, and 85 community colleges are exploring the feasibility of doing the same.
IG: Besides their low cost, are there any other advantages to reading textbooks online?
CK: Increasingly, Web-based textbooks provide innovative means of access. Flat World Knowledge, a new digital-textbook publisher, provides instructors the possibility of putting together new versions of their course materials, which are peer-reviewed and user-editable, and free of charge.
IG: That’s interesting. What is CUNY doing to help students shoulder the steep price of textbooks?
CK: CUNY has been helping through programs like the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) Initiative”a program that Councilman Barron helped create”and lets ASAP students receive textbooks at no cost. More recently, CUNY has taken measures to help students through the $10 million Student Financial Aid Initiative, which was created to protect students whose matriculation could be at risk, due to last year’s tuition increase. This fall, CUNY allocated $2 million to campus libraries for the purchase of textbooks and electronic books. Libraries have been quick to acquire textbooks and make them available on course reserves. In the first two months of the current school year, we have seen that the new reserve textbooks had already been used more than 55,000 times.
IG: Thanks to these funds, you’re also building CUNY’s first free e-book collection. Can you give us an update of your progress?
CK: We are currently negotiating the acquisition of 44,000 e-books. We have set into motion the trend for buying books online rather than through campus bookstores. The University is also encouraging colleges to utilize used textbooks and develop student co-op programs to seek or donate used textbooks, and encourage campuses to reduce college commissions and pass the savings to students through college bookstore discounts. Finally, CUNY is developing a matching gift program so that private donors can help students cover their textbook obligations. These are a few of the ways in which we are mending the broken market and providing leadership in leveling the playing field for our students.
IG: Thank you.