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Breaking the bank for books

University tackles rising textbook costs

Published: Thursday, January 9, 2014

Updated: Thursday, January 9, 2014 10:01


 

Danny Pagan, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, said he always waits until after the first week of classes to buy his textbooks. He wants to make sure his professors say they’re actually needed. 

This semester is expensive, he said. So far, textbooks have cost him $1,000, putting him close to the amount the average student at a public university spends in a year, according to collegeboard.com.    

Pagan said he has used financial aid to cover some of the costs and has put the rest on a credit card, which he plans to pay back later. 

Alex Valdez, a senior majoring in finance, said while he’s bought all the textbooks he needed, the rising costs of textbooks have taken a toll on his day-to-day expenses.

“I can’t afford a lot of other things right now that I’d much rather have,” he said. 

The price of textbooks has risen by 812 percent since 1978 — a rate more than even health care costs and housing costs, compared to the 250 percent the overall Consumer Price Index has increased by, according to an analysis by the American Enterprise Institute think tank. 

According to a survey conducted by the Textbook Affordability Project (T.A.P.) at USF, not all students have been able to buy the textbooks they needed. At some point during their college careers, 48 percent of the survey’s respondents said they didn’t purchase all their textbooks because of the cost. 

“The question goes without saying,” Monica Metz-Wiseman, coordinator of online collections at the USF Library who was one of the people who spearheaded T.A.P., said. “What does that mean in the classroom?” 

 As students continue to hunt around for the best prices of textbooks as their schedules are finalized during the first week of classes, the T.A.P. is attempting to find ways to make textbooks more affordable — if not free — to students. 

About three years ago, Metz-Wiseman was appointed co-chair of a committee to look for ways the university could better use open access textbooks, or online textbooks that are openly licensed and free to use, share or modify. 

But Metz-Wiseman, who said she had two sons who she watched go through USF, paying high amounts for textbooks and receive little compensation when trying to sell back their books, said the committee decided it was more than just open access it needed to focus on — it was the entire $8 billion industry that needed to be tackled.

After receiving funding from the student tech fee, a per-credit-hour fee each student pays for, Metz-Wiseman, another part-time employee and a graduate student created the T.A.P. 

The fees go toward purchasing licenses to create e-textbooks, which are then distributed for free to students, creating course reserves of print textbooks and course readings for large course sections to be used within the Library and maintaining a website that allows students to compare prices of where they can find the cheapest option for books — including options cheaper than the campus Barnes and Nobles bookstore, which USF Auxiliary Services contracts with to carry all required texts. 

The website also hosts resources and tools of student-generated textbook swap programs. 

But Metz-Wiseman said the situation is one that is a bit complicated. 

While the bookstore, through USF Auxiliary Services, provides the university with a $25,000 donation each year to help the Library purchase licenses from publishing companies, which the T.A.P. is then able to make available to students for free. Metz-Wiseman said maintaining a good relationship with Barnes and Nobles is important, but not at the expense of students, many of whom are graduating in debt. 

“I work for students, not Barnes and Nobles,” she said.

But the project faces several other obstacles. 

Many students, she said, don’t like electronic textbooks in comparison to print textbooks. 

“Would students be willing to take e-texts if they were $15 compared to the $250 print versions?” she asked. 

Publishing companies, she said, are more willing to negotiate down the price of electronic versions because they lose more money on print, which can be resold immediately. 

Last year, USF participated in two pilot trials in which the T.A.P. purchased licensing for e-textbooks, which were given to students at no cost. The savings, Metz-Wiseman said, were close to $25,000. For a larger scale, she said, the companies want a 100 percent buy-in rate — every student would be required to use the textbook, something some universities think would compromise academic freedom. 

Additionally, as the T.A.P. enters its third — and thus final year — of eligibility for using the tech fee, the funding source for purchasing will be a difficult sell. The Provost’s Office has funded the project for an additional six months, she said. 

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