New Report Shows College Textbook Costs Increasing Sharply Ahead of Inflation

Publishers Engage in Practices that Needlessly Drive Up Textbook Costs for Students
For Immediate Release

WASHINGTON (February 1, 2005) -  College textbook prices have increased at nearly four times the rate of inflation for all finished goods since 1994 and textbook publishers engage in practices that artificially inflate textbook costs, according to a new study by the Student PIRGs. With textbook costs already high - an average of $900 a year, or a fifth of tuition at a public four year university - the Student PIRGs called on publishers to stop needlessly inflating textbook costs.

"With textbook costs now nearly a fifth of a student's college costs, it's time for publishers to stop gaming the market," said Justin Pabian, a University of California-Santa Barbara student.

The study, which looks at the five most commonly purchased textbooks at59 universities in every region of the country, was conducted by student volunteers and staff of student PIRG chapters. Among the report's findings:

1. Prices are skyrocketing. Textbook prices are increasing at more than four times the inflation rate for all finished goods, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Producer Price Index. This finding contradicts the publishing industry's assertion that book prices are not going up significantly.

2. New editions are costly. Publishers issue new editions that are often unnecessary, making used books obsolete and forcing students to forgo less expensive used books.

  • A new edition of a textbook will, on average, cost 45% more than a used copy of the previous edition.
  • The price of the average new edition is increasing at twice the rate of inflation compared to the previous edition. The survey found price increases as high as 21% between editions, more than 3 times the rate of inflation.

3. Bundling costs a bundle. Publishers increase textbook prices by adding unnecessary bells and whistles - such as CD-ROMs and workbooks, and contrary to industry claims, the cheaper unbundled versions often can not be found on shelves.

  • The bundled books surveyed were 10 % more expensive than their unbundled versions, with examples of price differentials of up to 47%.
  • 50% of all bundled books surveyed did not have an accompanying unbundled version on the shelf.

4. New editions are often unjustified. 76% of the faculty surveyed in PIRG's Fall 2003 study said that new editions were only justified "half the time" or less. Furthermore, 65% of faculty surveyed used these additional items "rarely" or "never". This contradicts the claim made by publishers that faculty demand drives the production of new editions and bundles.

5. American students pay more. Publishers charge American students more for the same textbook than students in other countries.

  • The books surveyed were 20% cheaper on, with examples of books that were more than twice as expensive in the U.S. than in the UK.
  • Even greater disparities in US/overseas prices can be found on some publishers' websites. For example, according to Thomson Learning's website, all of their books found in the survey cost an average of 72% more in the U.S. than in the U.K., Africa and the Middle East.

The survey uncovered a number of particularly egregious examples. One example is Physics for Scientists and Engineers, published by Thomson Learning. First, the 5th edition (issued in 2000) was on the market for just four years before the 6th edition was issued (2004), yet there is little to no substantive difference between the two editions. The differences that do exist, such as some of the new problem sets and technological tools, could have been easily provided via supplement verses an entirely new edition. Second, according to Thomson Learning's website, the 6th edition sell for $134.96 in the U.S., but only $72.43 to students in the UK, Africa and the Middle East.

"I have noticed during my tenure as the Chair of the Undergraduate Committee that textbooks come out with new editions for introductory physics courses surprisingly frequently, and often without making substantial changes to the book. There are of course good reasons for writing a new edition of a textbook. Three such reasons are: there is new material to be taught, there is a new understanding of how to present the material, or there is a new audience for the book. In introductory physics, the nature of the subject is such that new material almost never occurs at the level that can justify an entire new textbook, and the audience is relatively stable. This leaves only substantial educational improvements, which also don't occur that often. In my role as one of the people selecting textbooks, I have often raised this issue with publishers. Many of them admit that one of their main reasons for publishing new editions is to counteract losses to the used book market," said Dr. Michael Dennin, Chair of the University of California Irvine Physics Department's Undergraduate Committee.

The Student PIRGs have previously called on the publishing industry to adopt "Best Practices" policies which would ensure that publishers keep production and pricing costs as low as possible while maintaining educational value; issue new editions only when there is justifiably new educational content; disclose to the faculty and public all of its products, prices and the length of time that a product is expected to be on the market; and pass the cost savings from online books on to students.

In particular, the Student PIRGs asked the Association of American Publishers last year to issue these recommendations to its member companies. To date, the AAP has refused to issue such recommendations. Meanwhile, over 500 mathematics professors from 150 universities called on publisher Thomson Learning to commit to issuing a new edition of its popular Calculus textbook only when there is new information about the field. Thomson has also refused this request.

"With more and more evidence coming out about how publishers are gaming the market, you wonder how much longer publishers are going to refuse to act on the problem," said Pabian.

About the Student PIRGs

The Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs) 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.

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