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Debate Over Textbook Costs Isn’t Just Academic

Times Staff Writer

Textbook prices have been rising at about twice the rate of inflation -- largely the result of special add-ons like CDs and workbooks -- according to a General Accountability Office report released last week.

That’s no surprise to Courtney Morse, a political science major in Portland, Ore., who says paying for textbooks loaded with little-used bells and whistles is becoming an overwhelming struggle.

“This report confirms what we have been saying all along,” said Morse, a Portland State University sophomore who has joined the Student Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy organization. “The price of textbooks is devastating, and publishers are doing it on purpose.”

While some students simply call Mom and Dad when textbooks have blown their budget, Morse said she doesn’t have that luxury -- she’s paying her college bills on her own. “When you are trying to come up with $200 for books every semester and still pay for food and rent and classes, it’s just horrendous,” she said. “Last year, I was looking at whether I would pay for books or make my rent.”

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Textbook publishers, who have been asked to explain their pricing practices to Congress, contend they’re being made into scapegoats. They say their own studies indicate their prices have climbed more modestly than the 6% average annual hike reported in the GAO study.

To be sure, some books are pricey, added J. Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Assn. of American Publishers in Washington. But the high costs largely reflect professors’ demands for constant updating, photographs, graphics and interactive tools that can help struggling students at any hour of the day or night over the Internet.

“Professors want these materials because it improves the success rate of their students,” Hildebrand said. “Yes, books can be expensive, but they don’t have to be. We are like a car dealer. We ask do you want leather or do you want cloth? Do you want the cheap radio or the expensive one? Whatever you want, we’ve got it.”

Hildebrand added that publishers make low-cost versions of books. Some of the cut-rate options include custom books -- which print only the chapters that professors want -- and black-and-white (rather than full-color) texts. If a student is paying hundreds of dollars for a book, it’s because the professor has ordered the Cadillac edition, he added.

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Ronald Miech, a math professor at UCLA, countered that if he had choices in ordering textbooks, it would be news to him. “I have never heard of a scaled-back version,” he said.

Indeed, he contended that he’s often forced to order books that come bundled with workbooks and software that he never uses. “I’ve tried the software,” he said. “I don’t like it and I never use it. But we don’t seem to have an option of buying the book without it.”

U.S. Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) wants to change that. When the Higher Education Act is debated next month, it will include an amendment offered by Wu encouraging publishers to “unbundle” their books, selling the text, the workbooks and software “a la carte.” He also wants publishers to provide more cost information to the professors who assign their books, and professors to pay more attention to the prices.

While Wu’s amendment is advisory rather than mandatory -- and it’s in pending legislation, not law -- he has vowed to continue tracking the issue and introduce stronger legislation if the advisory steps are not heeded.

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In the meantime, enterprising students have many ways to cut the cost of buying textbooks. Among them:

* Shop online. The most popular book purchased from AbeBooks.com last year was a marketing text that retails for $140, but sells online for $88 plus shipping, said Richard Davies, a company spokesman. The detriment to buying online is that it usually takes about a week to get the books. But if the campus bookstore is going to charge 20% to 40% more for the same text, it may be worth the wait.

* Consider international editions. U.S. publishers often sell their books overseas for a fraction of the domestic retail price, said Merriah Fairchild, a higher education advocate with the California Public Interest Research Group’s student chapters. “Calculus: Early Transcendentals,” for instance, sells for $125 in the U.S.; $97 in Canada; and $65 in Britain, Fairchild said. Sometimes the books have a slightly different look, Davies added. They may have less color or a soft cover, for instance, but the text is almost always the same.

* Buy used. Students sometimes think they can’t buy a used book if their professor is teaching from a new edition. But the new editions are sometimes only slightly altered versions of the old, Fairchild said. Ask the professor if you can use a previous year’s edition. If so, you may be able to save a bundle. Davies said that the $140 marketing book that he cited sells for as little as $1 plus shipping when it’s a few years old and well used.

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* Look for book swaps. There are several book-swapping services on the Web, Fairchild said. They’re generally run by students and are for students on specific campuses. One such site: www.CampusBookSwap.com lists dozens of schools where students can search for a specific text, or simply view a list of all the books other students have for sale on the site. The prices are not always the lowest available, however. For example, an anthropology text that sold for $94.95 new was listed at prices ranging from $50 to $74 on the campus book-swap site; the same text sold used at Amazon.com for as little as $16.99.

* Keep texts clean. Students who don’t write in or damage their books may be able to resell the books at the end of the term for a reasonable price, Davies said. But the more the student highlights, draws or inscribes a book, the less he’s going to get for it at resale. If you must write in a book, he suggests, use a pencil.

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Kathy M. Kristof, author of “Investing 101" and “Taming the Tuition Tiger,” welcomes your comments and suggestions but regrets that she cannot respond individually to letters or phone calls. Write to Personal Finance, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or e-mail kathy.kristof@latimes.com. For previous columns, visit latimes.com/kristof.

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