Search for what others have done to manage textbook costs

This week we have explored some actions that could be taken to manage the high cost of college textbooks. In closing our examination of this topic, I would like to take a moment to explore what others are doing to address this issue. The key idea for today’s post has been mentioned before: explore what others are doing, collaborate, expand upon, adapt or adopt the idea.

Efforts of Public Interest Groups

A coalition of student public interest research groups (PIRG) and student government associations in fourteen states joined together with the goal to make college affordable. An outcome of the collaboration is the Web site The group has had some success in building awareness of the issue of high textbook costs, reducing textbook price gouging, and has provided strategies for reducing the costs of textbooks. An excerpt of suggestions from the site is included below:

1. Initiatives to help encourage professors to choose less expensive books. Faculty can be encouraged to stay with the same edition longer, opt for lower cost books, choose unbundled content and get book orders in earlier in order to give the bookstore more time to find used books. Not only will this help get cheaper books on your school’s shelves, but also apply more pressure on the market itself to reduce the cost of books. See the California State University Academic Senate resolution.

Legislators can help give faculty greater tools to accomplish these objectives by following the lead of Washington and Connecticut in requiring greater price transparency by the publishers.

2. Establishment of textbook rental programs, such as those outlined in our Guide to Establishing Textbook Rental Services, or starting bookswaps like

3. Create more alternatives to traditional textbooks. There is a growing amount of high quality learning content available via the Internet for free or extremely low prices. This represents the single greatest path to real competition in the textbooks market, a view recently endorsed by the New York Times and examined in more depth in our recent report, Textbooks for the 21st Century.

In the Internet age, there’s little reason for the cost of a textbook to be so high. There are hundreds of thousands of professors who are able and willing to create learning content. The argument that royalties are needed is a myth. Very few professors who publish ever see royalties; the incentive to publish is predominantly for reputation building, not financial enhancement.

There are a few models for providing this content – we believe that the most viable have two key principles:

a. The content is peer-reviewed or otherwise evaluated by faculty and housed on a university or faculty-sanctioned site. This is the model for Rice University Press, Connexions, California State University’s MERLOT program, and the Global Text Project.

b. Second, that the content is uses an open content license such as the Creative Commons license. This is an alternative licensing system that content providers may use to allow their work to be more openly utilized by others with less restriction. This licensing program retains many of the most powerful publishing incentives (recognition and attribution among peers).

This is not just about “online” vs. “paper” textbooks. The content that most of these repositories offer can be used in both digital and print-only formats, depending on the preferences of the faculty and students who use them. What is unique is that the offerings are free or very low cost.

There are other models also worth mentioning. Freeload Press offers free downloadable books that are subsidized with ads, an approach about which we have some reservations about. Independent authors have put their books on the web, such as Daly’s Organic Chemistry Book and Crowell’s Physics Books.

University of Virgina combats the high cost of textbooks

This past week Laura Ciccantell, a colleague in CASP, forwarded me an article about a plan unveiled at the University of Virgina to combat textbook costs. A short quote/summary is provided below.

An innovative program unveiled by the University of Virginia will provide students with an attractive range of alternative textbook options, including the ability to rent textbooks for a semester or a full year. Other options include electronic books – or e-books – and a guaranteed buyback program.

University of Nevada prof. works with publishers to consolidate materials/excerpts

Donald Pfaff and Phil Boardman at the University of Nevada chose to combat the costs of textbooks by creating their own course material and working with publishers to author slim-downed versions of textbooks that contained only the essential materials.

Buying and selling used textbooks online, suing the industry

Individuals have started online businesses where students can sell and trade textbooks online. Other students have resorted to filing suit against the used textbook industry.

Closing thoughts

The high cost of college textbooks is a real concern. Students who need textbooks for school pay on average $900 each year (some less, some more) — inevitably the lack of realistic and affordable options will lead students to feel victimized by the university, the bookstore, and the publishing industry.

Through sharing and discussing ideas on this topic over the past week I think we can recognize that there are positive actions that can be taken to address this important issue. Each potential action can be beneficial to students, textbook authors, and educational institutions.

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