GAO Report Finds Textbook Prices Skyrocketing

For Immediate Release

WASHINGTON (August 16, 2005) – A new report by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirms previous research conducted by the Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs) into textbook prices.

The GAO report, requested by Congressman David Wu last year, found that textbook prices have risen at twice the rate of annual inflation over the last two decades, an average of 6 percent each year since 1987-1988, compared with overall price increases of 3 percent per year.

The report also found that textbooks and supplies are a significant college cost. Specifically, the GAO found the cost of textbooks and supplies as a percentage of tuition and fees is 26 percent for a fulltime student attending a 4-year public institution, 72 percent for a fulltime student attending a 2-year public institution and 8 percent at a 4-year private institution.

Lastly, the GAO found the practice of “bundling” CD-ROMS and workbooks to textbooks to be a significant factor in why textbook prices have increased so dramatically. The report also cites a proliferation of new editions as another factor in textbook price increases.

“This report confirms what we have said for two years,” said Merriah Fairchild, higher education advocate for the Student PIRGs. “First, textbooks are a significant college cost; second, textbook prices are skyrocketing; third, publishers’ practices contribute to the high cost of textbooks. Given how important education is in our society, practices like those of the publishers cited in the GAO report that limit educational access are unacceptable,” added Fairchild.

The report is timely given the fact that college students are heading to the campus bookstore in just a few short weeks. Only returning students know how much textbooks add to the overall cost of a college education. New students are in for a big surprise once they get through the long line to the register. Many of them will pay $900 or more, according to a survey conducted by the California Student Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) that found that students spend an average of $898 on textbooks each year.

“I’ve always wanted to go to college, but after my first year, I am already thousands of dollars in debt, so I am unsure if I can continue,” said Courtney Morse, a Portland State University student and Board member for the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group. “I only ask that textbook publishers do their part to eliminate this unnecessary burden and instead prioritize students.”

Fortunately, there are simple things students can do to save money on their textbooks now, and at the same time, push for changes within the textbook publishing industry.

“Students should not fall prey to the textbook publishers,” said Fairchild. “Instead they should do what they are best at: shop around, be creative about where they get their books and push for change.”

Here are ten ways students can save money and change the textbook industry:

1. Buy Textbooks Overseas Through the Internet. American publishers sell the same books overseas for as low as half the price of the American version. For example, Thomson Learning’s website sells Calculus: Early Transcendentals for $125 to American students, $97 ($125 C) to Canadian students and $65 (35 pounds) to British students. You can buy books overseas on many websites, including: and . You can get overseas prices for Thomson Learning books by going directly to their website: and click “UK” as your region.

2. Use an Online Bookswap. Bookswaps allow students to buy and sell used books directly from each other. Several online bookswaps now exist. Check out , a bookswap run by students for students, free of charge.

3. Ask Your Professors for the Previous Edition’s Syllabus. All too often publishers put out new editions without making substantive changes to the content. Every time a publisher produces a new, more expensive edition that has new page numbers, the professor has to create a new syllabus. Ask your professors if the previous edition was mostly the same. If so, ask if you can have a copy of the old syllabus. Then find a used copy online or from other students who took the class.

4. Borrow a Free Copy From the Campus Library or your Professors. Publishing companies and their sales representatives send professors multiple free samples of textbooks as a way to promote new products. Many professors either keep these copies or donate them free copies to the campus library. Before you buy a book check to see if you can borrow that free book from either your professor or the library.

5. Ask Your Professors to Negotiate Lower Prices and Longer Shelf Lives for Textbooks. The UCLA Math Department negotiated a 20% price cut in a popular Thomson Learning calculus book with just a little bit of pushing and the UC Santa Cruz Physics Department negotiated a reprint of a 1980 physics book that is just as good and much cheaper than brand new books. Let your professors know about these examples and ask them to try and do the same.

6. Ask Your Professors to Order Textbooks Early. If the campus bookstore knows before the end of the quarter/semester that the professor is going to use the same book the next quarter/semester, the bookstore will pay more for used copies because they know they will be able to resell them. Encourage all of your professors to use the same book for as long as possible and submit their textbook orders to the bookstore before the end of the quarter/semester so students can sell their used books for more money.

7. Ask your Professors to Order Textbooks Unbundled. A CALPIRG survey found that half of all textbooks now come “bundled” — or shrink-wrapped with additional instructional materials, such as CD-ROMs and workbooks. Some publishers tell professors the CD-ROMs and workbooks are free. The reality is the bundled items can dramatically increase the cost of a textbook. In one example, the bundle including the textbook was $130 and the textbook alone was only $60. Encourage your professors to order books unbundled and if they must bundle them, only order materials they know they will use.

8. Contact the Publishers Directly. Publishers report that they are sensitive to their customers needs and are only publishing what faculty and students want. Tell them how you feel about bundled textbooks and unnecessary new editions. Contact the publishers directly at .

9. Contact Your Elected Officials. Many state legislatures including California, Connecticut and Illinois have started investigating the publishers’ practices. Congress has launched its own investigation that is due out this month. Call your state and federal representatives and share your personal story. If your representative knows students in their district are struggling to afford textbooks they are much more likely to take action. Find your representative at and .

10. Start a Rental Service on Campus. Textbook rental services have been in existence for over a century and are in place at 20 colleges and universities around the country. Textbook rental fees range from $130 to $240 per year. For a guide on how to start a rental service on your campus, check out a new report, “Affordable Textbooks for the 21st Century: A guide to establishing textbook rental services,” by the CALPIRG Education Fund available at .

“As college costs continue to rise, there has never been a more important time for students to use their consumer buying-power to stand up to the publishing industry,” added Fairchild.

This list is partly based on a report by CALPIRG, entitled, “Rip-off 101: How the Current Practices of the Publishing Industry Drive up the Cost of College Textbooks.” The report found that even though students already pay $900 a year for textbooks, textbook publishers artificially inflate the price of textbooks by adding bells and whistles to the current texts, and forcing cheaper used books off the market by producing expensive new editions of textbooks that are barely different from the previous edition. The report also found that most of the faculty members surveyed in the report do not think many of these add-ons are useful and are supportive of efforts to streamline textbook costs and extend the shelf-life of current textbook editions. To download the report go to

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.