Breaking the bank for books
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.
While creating a reduced textbook flat fee in exchange for free electronic textbooks is a possibility, Metz-Wiseman said the chances of that going through the state is unlikely.
“The appetite in the Florida Legislature — all the way to the governor — to support more fees is not very good,” she said.
But even within the university, there are challenges.
A state operational audit last month, found USF in violation of state statutes surrounding textbook affordability. While laws require universities post no later than 30 days prior to the first day of each semester a list of each textbook required for each course with the ISBN number, authors and edition required, the audit stated USF “did not have monitoring procedures in place to ensure the posting of textbook lists 30 days before the first day of class.”
According to the audit, information for 1,661 textbooks for the Fall 2012 term and 2,059 textbooks for the Spring 2013 term was not posted on the website at least 30 days before, and 90 were posted after the first day of class.
“For 50 of the 90 textbooks posted from 5 to 49 days after the first day of class, the university did not provide explanations for the late posting,” the audit stated. “For the other 40 textbooks posted late, university bookstore personnel provided explanations for the late posting, such as … the instructors were not appointed until a later date and the textbook orders could not be placed until the instructors were appointed; certain courses were added late; and while original orders were submitted on time, additional items were added after the deadline to complete the orders.”
In its response, the university stated monitoring procedures would be enhanced and reminders before the 30-day deadline would be sent to department heads.
Metz-Wiseman said because of some of the textbooks not being available at the bookstore, several faculty have called the T.A.P. asking if versions of the textbooks can be found online.
But many faculty are unaware of the options available, Metz-Wiseman said, and students should talk to their TAs and professors about available options if they are aware of them.
Tristan Lear, a junior majoring in women’s and gender studies, who created a campaign last semester in which he distributed links to free online textbooks to classmates, said he has been asking in all his classes if he can make announcements telling students where they can find their books for free.
“It’s so easy for publishing companies to screw students over,” he said. “It’s just not fair.”
— Additional reporting by Wesley Higgins
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