The Daily Californian Online

It's Time to Turn the Page on Textbook Costs

By Nicole Allen
Special to the Daily Cal
Monday, August 2, 2010
Category: Opinion > Editorials

Textbooks are one of the most dreaded college expenses. The average student spends $900 per year, and prices are rising more than four times the rate of inflation. After spiraling out of control for decades, textbook prices may finally start to come down thanks to recent victories in CALPIRG's campaign to make textbooks affordable.

Provisions from a groundbreaking federal law kicked in over the summer, which will help reduce costs starting this fall. For students, the most noticeable change is that colleges must provide the list of assigned textbooks for each course, including ISBNs and prices, during registration. From now on, you'll have the entire summer to shop around for the best deals, and you'll know in advance exactly how much your books are going cost!

Students will also benefit from new limits on "bundling," the practice of packaging texts with CDs, pass-codes and other bells and whistles that drive up costs but often go unused. Now publishers selling bundles must also offer the items for sale separately, so you're not forced to buy the extras if all you need is the book.

The law also addresses the problem at its core by requiring publishers to provide textbook prices when they interact with professors. CALPIRG research found that publishers often withhold this information, making it difficult for professors to consider cost on behalf of students. This is by far the most important reform, because it will increase competition with lower cost options and eventually drive publishers to lower their prices.

Another change to watch out for is the increasing popularity of open-source textbooks. Open textbooks are free online, openly licensed books that are available in print for about $20-40. Unlike conventional e-books, which can be expensive and difficult to access, open textbooks are available in a range of affordable formats. This fall, we estimate that more than a thousand professors will be teaching from open textbooks, and more than 2,500 have signed our Open Textbooks Statement of Intent to give preference to affordable alternatives whenever possible.

More than a dozen new open textbooks have been published in the last year, and numerous efforts to create more are underway. Just last month, the University of Illinois launched a project to develop a new open textbook, and a bill introduced by U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., would create a federal grant program to fund similar efforts. Even publishers are stepping up to the plate. An innovative company called Flat World Knowledge now offers more than 20 high quality open textbooks, with nearly 50 more in the pipeline.

This year, students have more cost saving options than ever before. The top way to save is textbook rentals, which can literally cut costs by hundreds. Until recently, only a handful of schools offered rental programs, but now the trend is spreading across the country like wildfire. Students can find an even greater selection of rentals online through companies like and, which operate through the mail like Netflix.

Students holding out for a more high tech solution are in luck, too. E-textbooks are rapidly becoming available on websites like for use on computers, phones and e-readers like Kindle and iPad. It might not be the best way to save just yet - most devices are priced around $500, and e-books aren't much less than used hard copies - but greater competition and wider availability are bound to bring down costs soon.

Making textbooks affordable will take time, but we're heading in the right direction. The new federal law is a monumental victory that will help students take advantage of cost saving options like rentals now, while paving the way for long-term solutions like open textbooks. This year, CALPIRG will continue the quest for affordable textbooks by educating professors about open textbooks and raising awareness of the new law.


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