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Bill to require textbook-price transparency

College textbook prices have been growing at four times the rate of inflation since 1994, according to a nonpartisan public interest group; but there are ways to save money.

While there is one Assembly bill pending that publishers advocate and another bill on the governor’s desk that would address the rising cost of textbooks, students are turning to computers and libraries to lower their book budgets.

“In some years I spend $900 on textbooks. That’s 20% of my course fees,” said Ching-Yun, a UC Irvine student.

The most convenient way for students to buy discounted textbooks is usually online, through websites like Half.com or CheapestTextbooks.com, said Kailee Brickner-McDonald, a campus organizer for California Student Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG), a statewide nonprofit, nonpartisan advocate for the public interest.

Websites overseas often sell the same if not very similar versions of U.S. textbooks at a fraction of the price, she said.

Many students post used textbooks for sale on social websites like MySpace and Facebook or on fliers around the campus. On occasion, libraries keep a copy of a course’s books on reserve.

Publishers generally do not list the price of their books for professors, leaving them in the dark. Students should ask the professor if they can use an older version of the book without bundled materials like solution manuals and CDs.

Professors are also writing peer-reviewed textbooks unique to their universities, and making them available free online.

“I completely agree that the price of books is ridiculous,” said Michael Smith, director of the UCI bookstore.

Senate bill 832, introduced by Sen. Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro), would require textbook companies to list their prices on their marketing materials and websites.

They would also be required to estimate how long they plan to keep the product on the market and list all the changes made between the current and previous versions.

If passed, the bill would make California the sixth state to mandate so-called transparency from publishers to faculty.

“The textbook program paradigm is so broken students are depending on legislation to help,” Smith said.

Textbook publishers advocate Assembly Bill 1548. Under that bill, publishers would not have to start printing price and revision history on books until 2010 and faculty would have to ask for the price of individual books, rather than having them already listed for them — a requirement of SB 832.


JOSEPH SERNA may be reached at (714) 966-4619 or at joseph.serna@latimes.com.


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