As Price of Textbooks Continues to Rise, More Students Opt for the Digital (and the Rental)

It’s the second day of the spring semester and the line at the campus bookstore has already serpentinized the aisles. It is lunch hour for many students, but it is their moans and groans, not their hungry stomachs, that are heard across the room. Those who are not in-line are on the second floor, sifting through mounds of textbooks, looking for the much-coveted “used” yellow stickers. Others have forgone the business of doing their textbook shopping directly from bookstore, opting, instead, for cheaper offers online.

“The first time I bought my textbooks, I was shocked at the price,” said Devin Fell, a sophomore at the University of Arkansas. “It’s really a debilitating cost to students.”

Many students hand over their credit cards in disgruntlement, unwillingly ready to pay over $1110 per semester on books costs, according to the California Public Interest Research Group. They are many factors that play a part in textbooks’ price, such as years of research, contributions from dozens of individuals, and the actual manufacturing of the new editions and prints.

“Most of this cost is attributable to paying for the work and original ideas of authors, experts, editors, researchers, reviewers and designers,” said Susan Aspey in an e-mail, tvice president of communications at Pearson Education. “Publishers, like all businesses today, are faced with rising manufacturing and transportation costs.”

For example, in Jane B. Recce textbook, entitled Campbell Biology, more than “7,000 hours of researching and writing went into the final product, as well an additional 1,000 hours for reviewing the final pages with only the authors and contributors, alone,” Aspey said. “Developmental editors spent 8,800 hours reading multiple drafts to revise chapters, querying authors and crafting the layout of each page. Including the hours spent by the copy editor, developmental artists, and production work, more than 13.8 person years of work went into the development of this one, new edition.”

“That said, there are independent studies that show students are increasingly paying less for their course materials than in prior years, thanks to publishers’ efforts to offer a variety of lower-price options in print or digital formats,” Aspey said. “The retail market for course materials is competitive and students who are willing to spend time comparison shopping are able to find books attractively priced.”

According to a study done by Student Monitor, students purchase only about 78 percent of their textbooks, and during the 2010 semester, student spending for textbooks declined 13 percent.

The University of Arkansas bookstore has a buyback program in which the store buys back used textbooks for up to 50 percent of the original cost and then resells the book at a discounted cost to students. The program can be seemingly beneficial for students, for buying and selling, but the price at which the university buys the book back, can be painfully low.

As a consequence, rises in textbook rentals, as well as purchasing used textbooks, have been noticed throughout the market.

As an author to a number of textbooks, Bruce Colbert, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said he realized renting cuts into his profits but “having to put his own two children through college,” he supports any savings to the student.

“In addition, I remember my college days when I had to pay for my own education,” Colbert said.

The high textbook costs have also aided in a rise of digital textbooks, or eBooks.

The selling of digital books has become an important part of Pearson Education, and Aspey said she expects that demand “will continue to grow.”

The University of Arkansas uses Pearson’s MyLab program in most of the university’s math classes, in which students do the majority of their homework online in a lab with the aid of tutorials and interactive tools.

“More than 90 percent of our higher-ed content is currently available in digital formats, and our MyLab and online learning programs saw record growth of more than 8 million student registrations in 2010,” Aspey said.

“Digital textbooks are 25 to 50 percent cheaper than print textbooks and have become relatively prevalent in the University of Arkansas bookstore,” said Ali Sadeghi-Jourabchi, manager of the University of Arkansas bookstore.

In addition to the competition in publishing, university bookstores are also looking to beat out the independent booksellers or renters by not only offering a variety of formats but by comparing prices with other stores and picking the lowest price for their store. This strategy is “called price-pointing,” Sadeghi-Jourabchi said.

“I asked all departments to look at what students need—memory sticks, note books, you name it—and I asked them to price-point, to find the best prices for the students in the bookstore,” Sadeghi-Jourabchi said.

Meanwhile, Zac Henderson, a senior and creative writing student at university, goes to the casher and pays for a clicker, a stack of folders, and a Wrigley gum. None of his purchases includes a single textbook. “It’s all in here,” he says, waving a rubber-coated Amazon Kindle with satisfaction.

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