OPINION: Curbing the College Textbook Rip-Off - Southern Maryland Headline News

OPINION: Curbing the College Textbook Rip-Off

Commentary by Senator Roy Dyson (D-29th)

After putting together enough money in assistance grants, loans and family contributions college-bound students face another significant expense - purchasing the textbooks they need for their courses. There is virtually no way that students can shop comparatively for these books because they are notified what books they will need at nearly the last minute. So, they end up buying their books from the college bookstore at the top price. It is not unusual for books for one semester to cost over $500. To many students and their families the high cost of books comes as an unwelcome surprise.

It should be noted that the textbook market is supply driven, rather than consumer driven and consequently, offers students no role in determining price, format or quality of the product.

The 2009 General Assembly approved and the Governor signed into law The College Textbook Competition and Affordability Act of 2009. The purpose of the new law is to control the costs of college textbooks, thereby making them more affordable to students. It requires public colleges and universities to release the names of books that will be used for courses three weeks after a faculty member makes a selection. In that way, students will have more time to find books at better prices. According to the new law, public institutions of higher education must develop and implement specific practices and processes relating to textbook selection and adoption.

Before the new law, generally, the governing boards of higher education institutions were responsible for setting policies and procedures for the institutions.

The new law, which became effective July 1, 2009, requires public institutions of higher education to develop and implement a campaign to make faculty aware of textbook issues, including a textbook adoption process that considers the availability and suggested retail prices of current and used versions of textbooks, develop a procedure by which bookstores and students are made aware of textbook information that must be disclosed and implement a best practices process for the faculty in selecting textbooks and course materials. In addition, public institutions of higher learning will have to study textbook prices at the institutions and make recommendations to lessen the impact of textbook costs on students. The information must be posted on the institutions' web sites.

In consultation with the states two and four year public institutions, the Maryland Association of Community Colleges and the Maryland College and University Association, the Maryland Higher Education Commission must conduct a feasibility study regarding the establishment of textbook rental programs and a statewide digital marketplace for textbooks as a way to lower textbook costs.

The practices used by textbook publishers that have resulted in exorbitant costs for college textbooks were exposed in 2004 in a report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). The report titled "Rip-off 101," was the PIRG effort to inform the public about the high cost of college textbooks and possible reasons for those high costs.

In July 2005, a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that college textbook prices increased by 186% from 1986 to 2004. That's more than twice the rate of inflation, but less than the 240% increase in tuition over the same period. The report concluded that "many factors affect textbook pricing, but the increasing costs associated with developing products to accompany textbooks, such as CD-ROMs and other instructional supplements, best explain price increases in recent years." This practice is known as "bundling." And the bundling of textbooks with supplementary materials accounts for 10% to 30% of the increase. Under the new State law, publishers are required to make bundled materials available separately, each separately priced.

Congress reacted to these reports and other information by enacting The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 which attempts to address concerns about college textbook prices. The Act becomes effective July 1, 2010. The Maryland law is patterned after provisions in the federal law.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 15 states have adopted similar laws. As a co-sponsor of the College Textbook Competition and Affordability Act of 2009, I am proud that Maryland can count itself as the 16th state do take action to alleviate the high cost of college textbooks for students who enter our public colleges.

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