Making Textbooks Affordable

August 27, 2014

As the droves of new and returning students head back to school, we are all in for some big expenses over the next few weeks. And these expenses may not always be what you expect.

This dawned on me the other day as I saw numerous cars on the highway packed with essentials to outfit a dorm room. For these parents and students, not only is the cost of tuition a major concern, but so is the cost of everyday needs in school. And one of the most shocking costs I saw firsthand this year would have to be textbooks.

Every year, students will line up at the bookstore to purchase their books and will find astronomical prices for certain books. Case in point, my daughter’s text book for math was $282! There were no used books available as it happened to be a “new addition” so we were stuck paying full price – with no other choice in sight.

While prices are high, the state and the federal government have taken steps in recent years to help make textbooks more affordable. Specifically, we’ve targeted key selling techniques that jacked up student expenses in the past.

These techniques include things like “bundling.” Often, textbooks are sold packaged with a CD, a digital version, a passcode, or even a supplemental workbook. These extras, while not always used by students, are added in to the cost of the book they are attached to. According to research conducted by the Student PIRGs about half of all textbooks are bundled, and bundled textbooks are 10-50 percent more expensive than the textbook alone. Additionally two out of three professors reported they “rarely” or “never” use the supplemental items in bundled textbooks.

In Connecticut, we proposed multiple bills in the legislature to ban such sales. Today, thanks to the federal Higher Education Opportunities Act (HEOA), this bundling of products is no longer allowed anywhere in the country. The textbook provisions in this law ban all bundling and require publishers to offer all items in bundle for sale separately.

The HEOA also requires more disclosure by publishers and schools to help students and professors budget smarter. Publishers now have to disclose prices when marketing textbooks to professors, so that professors can choose more affordable options if they see fit. The HEOA textbook provisions also require that colleges provide students with a list of assigned textbooks for each course during class registration. This requirement helps students plan ahead for expenses and shop around for used books or other deals on the required reading material.

The HEOA has made some great changes to the law with measurable results, in the 2005-2006 academic school year, full-time college students spent on average $644 on textbooks. But in the 2010-2011 academic year, when the HEOA was implemented, that number dropped to an average of $534, according to market research firm Student Monitor. This still is not an affordable average by any means, but it is a move in the right direction.

Here in Connecticut, the state legislature has also taken even further steps to help students get the textbooks they need. In 2006, we passed a law that requires state schools to create a system for students to purchase textbooks using financial aid that has not yet been applied to tuition to help pay for books. This, paired with protections under federal law, is welcome help and relief for students.

Clearly, we have a long way to go to make college more accessible on all levels. Textbook prices are a start, and I hope to continue working on new ways to further reduce the student burden. Tuition is only a fraction of the college education price tag, and more must be done to put that price tag in reach.