New Federal Law May Reduce Textbook Prices for Students

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After struggling to pay for the increasing costs of higher education, students could see a decrease in textbook prices and an overall improvement in the textbook industry this fall due to a new federal law that aims to hold textbook publishers more accountable.

The law, which went into effect July 1, requires publishers to provide professors with textbook prices when they market the books and offers students the option to unbundle textbook packages. In addition, colleges must inform students which texts are needed for classes at least one semester prior, allowing students to search for the best deal and even opt out of taking the class if the materials are too expensive.

Pioneered by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, the law is one piece of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, an act that aims to circumvent the financial barriers students face while paying for high quality education by making the entire process more fair and transparent.

"The goal of this law is to make the market more fair for the students," said Nicole Allen, textbook advocate for CalPIRG. "Right now, the publishers have an unfair advantage that this law will limit."

In the past, faculty members were sometimes unaware of textbook prices while choosing course texts. According to a survey by CalPIRG, 77 percent of professors surveyed said publishers rarely or never disclose textbook prices if faculty do not ask. Additionally, "bundles" of supplementary materials drove up the prices for students.

UC Berkeley alumna Casondra Koufos, who graduated in 2010, said buying textbooks was always a hassle. She said she would explore alternative ways to avoid paying for textbooks.

"I would have to check the same textbook out from the library like five times a semester," Koufos said.

UC Berkeley student Max Bamsey, who plans to finish his credits this summer, said he had similar struggles throughout his four years on campus.

"A lot of times I wouldn't even buy the book because it cost almost $200, and it wasn't worth it," Bamsey said.

He added that advance notice of textbook prices would help him to evaluate all of his options and choose the most economical vendor.

While Allen said publishing companies have been selling textbooks at rates that outpace inflation, Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, said textbook prices are decreasing.

Hildebrand said the purchasing process has always been transparent. He added that publishing companies support the law because they believe they already comply with the new requirements.

However, the association and other leading publishing companies lobbied "strongly" against the law up until it was passed two years ago, according to Christina Mulka, spokesperson for Durbin.

Meanwhile, Durbin is working on another bill that would grant money to up-and-coming "open source" textbooks. Open source textbook companies publish their own textbooks online at no cost to faculty and students and make the texts available in print for $20 to $30. The textbooks are unique in that professors can modify the texts to fit their curriculum, according to Jeff Shelstad, founder and CEO of Flat World Knowledge, an open source textbook publishing company.

"Professors no longer have to build their syllabus to match the text," Shelstad said. "The textbook can be built to match the syllabus."


Contact Zoe Filippenko at [email protected]

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