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New Laws, Free Books and Textbook Rentals Could Help Curb Rising Costs This Fall

Prices Outpace Inflation Fourfold, But The End May Be In Sight
For Immediate Release

BOSTON, Mass. (August 26, 2010) — Students across the country are gearing up for sticker shock over textbook prices this semester.  The average student spends $900 per year on textbooks, and new calculations by  Student PIRGs show that costs have increased at an astounding rate: textbook wholesale prices have risen more than four times the rate of inflation over the last two decades (1990-2009)

"I am shocked at how expensive textbooks are," said John Waller, a freshman at the University of Houston Downtown.  "It's my first semester of college, and I'm going to spend $750 on books.  There's a problem when costs are so high, especially with the current economic situation in our country."  

Many students will face the same frustration of high prices this semester; however, things are starting to change.  Three new developments in the textbooks arena suggest that textbook costs may start to come down.

New Federal Law

On July 1st of this year, provisions from the Higher Education Opportunity Act kicked in, marking several important changes that will help rein in textbook costs.  The most significant reform will increase competitive pressure in the market by requiring publishers to inform professors of textbook prices and revision histories.   Student PIRGs research found that faculty are often kept in the dark about pricing, making it difficult to consider cost on behalf of students.

"The new law empowers professors to readily identify lower-cost options that suit their instructional needs," said Dr. D. Steven White, Professor of Marketing & International Business at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth on a conference call last month.

Another requirement in the law is that colleges must provide the list of assigned textbooks for each course during registration, which means that students will now have months – rather than weeks or days – to save up and shop around for the best deals.  The law also limits bundling, a notorious practice used by publishers to drive up costs.

Read more about the law here: http://www.studentpirgs.org/textbooks/heoa

Open-Source Textbooks

Another exciting development is that affordable alternatives are on the rise.  Open-source textbooks, which are commonly hailed as “the next step,” will be used in hundreds of new classrooms starting this fall, including two of White’s courses. 

Open textbooks are college texts offered online under a license that allows free digital access and low-cost printing.  Unlike conventional e-books, which can be expensive and highly restrictive, open textbooks are free online and hard copies are affordable, $20-40 in most cases. White estimates that his switch to open textbooks will save his students more than $11,000.

The Open College Textbook Act, which was introduced in Congress by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), would establish a federally funded competitive grant program to create more open textbooks.  

Read more about open textbooks here: http://www.studentpirgs.org/open-textbooks 

Rental Textbooks

Although prices continue to skyrocket, students have gained new ways to escape paying full fare.  Textbook rental programs are at the top of the list, having spread like wildfire over the summer to colleges across the country. Starting this fall, students at literally thousands of colleges could save hundreds by renting their books – either on campus or online through websites like Chegg.com or BookRenter.com.

Read our tips to save on textbooks here: http://www.studentpirgs.org/textbooks/tips 

Although these new developments will not cause textbook prices to drop overnight, cash-strapped students should find them at least somewhat heartening.  In the words of Waller, "With textbook costs so high, we need all the help we can get."

About the Student PIRGs

The Student Public Interest Research Groups is a national network of non-profit, non-partisan student advocacy groups that work on public interest issues pertaining to the environment, consumer protection and government reform.

The new figure on inflation was calculated from Bureau of Labor Statistics Producer Price Index (PPI) data, which measures the average change of wholesale prices over time.  For inflation on textbook prices, we compared the PPI for “College Textbook Publishing” for 1990 (210.2) and 2009 (628) to the PPI for “All Finished Goods” for the same years (119.2 and 172.5 respectively).  The outcome was that the increase in the PPI for textbooks is 4.4 times the increase in the PPI of finished goods.

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