When the Higher Education Opportunities Act was signed into law in 2008, one of the bill’s goals was to increase transparency in textbook costs by requiring professors and universities to make the prices of textbooks assigned for class available before registration.
The requirement would, in theory, force both professors and students to consider pricing before either assigning a textbook or registering for a class. This consideration would then create a marketplace where students can consider multiple class options and professors would have to slim down pricing to keep their classes competitive.
“That was part of the intent,” Rameen Mohammadi, the associate provost at Oswego State, said about the provision. “Where you would say ‘This is my book that I’m going to use’ and we would have to review what we posted on the Internet for the registration, and they might say ‘Oh wow, I didn’t realize this book was $200.”
In the past few years, however, the prices of textbooks have continually increased dramatically. According to the Student Public Interest Research Group, textbook prices have increased 22 percent over the past four years, a rate that is quadruple the inflation rate.
Because of this, some students struggle to afford textbooks, which also brings into question whether the law has changed the way professors consider assigning textbooks.
Mohammadi said that, after reviewing textbooks assigned by professors following the act, he has seen professors take price more into account.
“Faculty are going to loose leaf more, staying with old editions more and they are ordering fewer books, which, of course will end up being cheaper,” Mohammadi said.
Oswego State students can check prices prior to registration on MyOswego. Mohammadi said having the prices available allows students more choice, but added that he isn’t sure if they are utilizing their options.
“If students say ‘No, I don’t want to pay $300,’ they can take this other course that has books for $80,” Mohammadi said. “So they can make those choices, though it’s not clear to me they are making choices.”
Senior geology major Julie Meleski said she has used the information to consider textbook prices before registering, but only for general education classes.
“You can see if it requires a text or suggests a text, and I always prefer, if I don’t really know either of the professors, I’ll choose it based on whatever textbook would be cheaper,” Meleski said.
But even if students know the prices in advance, that fact remains that, according to the College Board, on average students spend $1,137 on textbooks each year. The data would seem to indicate professors are still assigning extravagantly-priced books.
Edward Lonky, a professor in the Psychology department whose textbook assignments in his courses range from $24 used in one class to $176 new for another, said that he takes many things into consideration before assigning a textbook, but price is not one of them.
“What is the absolute best textbook for the course I’m teaching, what’s the most current, the most relevant, the best written, has the best ancillary support, whether online or in class, that’s what I look at,” Lonky said. “What is going to serve students best as far as learning the course content.”
Lonky said he realizes that the price of textbooks is high, but that books are a cost of going to college, and he said he wouldn’t want to sacrifice the quality of the education because of that.
“I know that they’re expensive, I know that, invariably, I have students who are in financial straits and don’t get the books for weeks because they don’t have the money, so I know that’s an issue,” Lonky said. “My feeling is that, that’s part of going to school. You wouldn’t say ‘I’m gonna go be a race car driver’ and go to the race and say ‘But I can’t afford the car, so I’ll run around the track.’”
Some professors do take cost into consideration. Economics professor David Andrews said he recently switched one of his courses to a more expensive textbook and struggled over the decision before accepting it was necessary.
“I sort of feel like students have to spend so much money on books these days, there’s only so badly I can feel about it,” Andrews said. “But I definitely take it into account. I think everyone does.”
While students can control what they pay by deciding on a cheaper course, they often choose the course more suited to their learning preferences. That’s what senior geology major Tyler Cretti said he does.
“If I see a class that has a $300 textbook, and there’s also a class with a $150 textbook, I’m still gonna go with the more expensive one if I think it’s a better class,” Cretti said.
More often, students will explore every avenue to try to reduce their cost of buying expensive textbooks. That includes everything from buying older editions, to sharing with friends, buying eBooks or not buying the book at all.
Senior psychology major Erika Dobereiner said she does whatever she can to save money on textbooks, which sometimes comes at a cost.
“I go to Amazon and find older editions, so I don’t really always get the right textbook,” Dobereiner said.
Students have many options when it comes to shopping around for books. Aside from buying books used or new, Chegg and Amazon have rental services. Many students also end up sharing books with classmates to split the cost. But the cost of textbooks comes primarily down to what book the professor chooses, which is influenced by the publishers.
When professors are choosing a textbook they are approached by representatives from publishers, who try to sway them to use their book by giving them new editions for free, and offering ancillary features if they choose their book.
Bookstore manager Susan Raby said these representatives can make a difference in what book the professor chooses, depending on what they offer.
“Say I’m a business instructor and you’re a textbook rep, you’re selling to instructor not the book store,” Raby said. “So you come and say ‘OK look at this. This is great because it can do this and this and in addition, for you, we have these slides and we have them broken down into classes. We have a bank of tests and a bank of quizzes and handouts you can prepare and hand out to your students’. All these ancillary materials are one of those things that professors look at.”
Raby said it can be frustrating seeing the prices go up for students.
“Publishers are in the business of making money,” Raby said. “They’re for-profit, and they do tricky things, like reorganize. Where there may not be a ton of new material [in a new edition of a textbook], but it’s reorganized.”
Raby also said that the rising costs could ultimately force students not to buy certain textbooks, which could be detrimental to their education.
“It’s the students who are most hurt by the costs of textbooks rising,” Raby said. “I think that, can you pass a test without buying a textbook? Probably, if you’re a good student and you go to class everyday and take good notes, you could probably get by. But that defeats the purpose of the whole education. A textbook is supposed to enhance the student’s experience. They’re supposed to work hand in hand to provide an excellent education, and when you take some of that away, the excellence is diminished.”
Meleski said she has gotten by without buying a textbook before.
“For a lot of gen eds, I don’t buy the book, because my first two years I bought the books and never used them. It’s pretty easy to get around,” Meleski said.
But in certain classes, not buying the book could hurt a student’s grade. Lonky said he has seen instances where students struggle because they don’t purchase the book, but that he can’t take that into account while teaching.
“Part of going to college is having books and you have to have it day one,” Lonky said. “If a book is $300 and you think you’re getting ripped off, you probably are. But banks are ripping you off, gasoline, oil companies are ripping you. But I don’t think I’m ripping you off by assigning a particular book.”
Andrews said he often sees students without the book struggle on tests and exams and, while he can provide them help, he is not able to track who does or does not buy the book.
“In my class, if you don’t have the book, you will probably crash and burn pretty quickly,” Andrews said. “But I can’t try to keep up with whether they have bought the book or not.”
Mohammadi said he believes the students who have the most financial need are receiving assistance, but still recognizes the problems the escalating costs can cause for students.
“The price of books is a big deal, there’s no two ways about it,” Mohammadi said. “As they’ve gone up throughout the years they’ve become a pretty substantial part of what it takes to get an education, so I think by and large it affects access for that reason.”
As for whether the Higher Education Opportunities Act has helped give students the options they need to help with that access by giving more options, the jury is still out.
“That’s not what I hear – that students are dropping it or not taking this course because the price of the books,” Mohammadi said. “But perhaps part of that is because professors are paying more attention to this and picking less expensive books or fewer books.”