Climbing book prices
February 22, 2010 —
When Kathleen Straus was a student at Hunter College in New York City, textbooks for a semester totaled about $4, but not because she scoured the Internet for a great deal. The virtual trade of textbooks was still a few decades in the making.
The nation’s economic troubles at the time had a different name: the Great Depression. Hunter students rented their books and received free tuition.
“Nobody had any money,” Straus said. “I remember the four dollar fee ... It’s unheard of today. You can’t even buy a pamphlet for four dollars.”
A few generations down the line, Straus’ granddaughter Rosemary Hitchens is completing her freshman year at SVSU.
Hitchens’ era has its own set of economic woes, but tuition isn’t free, and her textbooks are anything but cheap.
“I spend hundreds of dollars at the bookstore,” Hitchens said.
As the textbook market remains stiff, students, faculty and even major booksellers are taking creative steps toward achieving affordability.
Changing with the times
Barnes & Noble College Booksellers, the company through which SVSU operates its bookstore, aims to compete with outside sources that attract students with lower price tags, said Jade Roth, vice president of books.
“If customers don’t want to shop in your store for whatever reason, you’re not a very good retailer,” she said. “We take our responsibility to the students very seriously.”
Hitchens shops in the bookstore for one of its primary benefits: convenience.
“We make sure there is a book available for every student in every class,” Roth said.
It’s purchasing books often at a fraction of the price that attracts students to alternative sellers on the Web.
“I haven’t tried it yet,” said Hitchens, a health science freshman. “But a lot of my friends are buying them online, so I’m thinking of trying it.”
So Barnes & Noble is experimenting with a rental system that has potential to save students money.
The company piloted the program with 25 campuses in January. Students could rent books to return at the semester’s end, margin note-takers and highlighters welcome.
Roth said Barnes & Nobel is still evaluating the program, which appears to have had success in the early stages.
“We’re looking to add more campuses in the fall to see if rentals make sense,” she said.
It makes a lot of sense, Straus says.
“To rent your textbooks was very good. I think that should be used again,” she said. “It doesn’t pay to buy them.”
Although research shows students prefer the print medium, Roth said a digital movement is somewhere on the horizon.
“I think that’s where it’s going, but we’re a long, long way from there,” she said.
Digital textbooks debuted in 2003 and were available for a small percentage of titles. That percentage is growing. And according to Roth, 82 percent of students own laptops nationwide.
“There’s still a disconnect between what is being used by faculty and what’s available digitally,” she said. “There needs to be a change in curriculum before students see a huge value [in digital textbooks].”
The professor’s approach
Even faculty aren’t immune from the sticker shock of today’s prices.
“I’m aghast at the prices of some of the books,” said Mark McCartney, pointing out an intermediate accounting book on his office shelf that he estimates at $250.
Despite this grim reality, the accounting professor isn’t willing to sacrifice quality.
“I’m not going to buy a lousy book just because it’s cheap,” he said. “I want you guys to be well prepared when you graduate.”
McCartney said his field releases new editions of books about every three to four years as accounting functions change. When an old edition’s content and practice problems are out of style, students have few options aside from upgrading.
The potentially draining effect new editions can have on students’ wallets varies in each discipline, however.
Christopher Surfield, assistant professor in economics, said new editions in his field generally come with changes in the way scholars interpret and analyze topics, such as the financial crisis and the health care discussion. Core principles tend to remain constant.
When students ask if they can get by with an older edition, “officially I say no,” Surfield said. “Unofficially I say, ‘You’re in my class. You’re an economist. You need to figure out what are the relevant costs, what are the relevant benefits. There are tradeoffs to be made.”
One of Surfield’s costeffective approaches to satisfying curriculum changes is assigning the Wall Street Journal as the required course text.
He recognizes those situations when a textbook won’t best serve the needs of his students.
“Stats,” he said “is one of those topics best served when people practice it, not when people read it.”
The student choice
A growing number of choices means no two bookbuying experiences are exactly the same.
Many students start with the Web, where the best bargains are often found.
Sites such as TextbookLink. com are in the business of offering books at reduced prices and offering free shipping on buy-backs.
Half.com is a popular site for textbook buyers and sellers from around the world. Users find a wide range of prices for most books and the security and policies of parent company eBay.
Renters often turn to Chegg.com, the site that claims it’s No. 1 in textbook rentals. Chegg offers full refunds for orders returned within 30 days and guarantees great delivery rates and quality.
The potential setbacks of some Web transactions are books that don’t arrive on time, books that don’t arrive in good condition and books that don’t arrive at all.
Other disappointing moments include opening a package to discover the wrong book or the absence of supplementary bells and whistles such as CDs.
Like Hitchens, communication junior Mario Volante opts to avoid the guesswork and shops in the campus bookstore.
“I bought them online before and didn’t get one in,” he said.
Knowing he’ll get exactly what he needs when he needs it is worth paying extra, he said.
The methods for transferring knowledge from book to brain prove to be numerous, and as communication senior Libby Isanhart knows, it’s hard to get past dropping major dollars at any venue.
“Book prices are notoriously high ... really high,” she said. “But you’ve got to get them somewhere.”