Community Commentary: Balancing the books for students

Higher education is undergoing tremendous financial pressure due to the dismal state of California's budget.

Colleges are being forced to increase tuition, and at the same time, they are offering decreased services. While tuition increases and fee hikes gain front-page attention, the cost of textbooks has risen almost twice as fast. Lurking silently in the background, this hidden expense affects every student in California.

That's why I asked the Joint Legislative Audit Committee (JLAC) to study the causes of rising textbook costs. The state auditor submitted a report on this topic to the JLAC in August of 2008, but the report has stayed largely unnoticed until now.

I believe it's time to revisit the recommendations made by the auditor. The report is as relevant now as it has ever been, with students and families struggling to reduce the cost of a college education. The cost of textbooks found by the auditor would most likely be seen as a bargain by today's students, given the fact that textbook costs continue to skyrocket out of control.

Community college students pay more for their textbooks than they do for course fees, with almost 60% of their total education costs going to textbooks. A full-time student can expect to spend, on average, between $692 and $905 simply to buy the books needed for their courses. Many students are faced with a delayed graduation because they have to take fewer courses in order to be able to afford their textbooks.

Students can buy used books through a campus bookstore or from online retailers, but the availability of used books isn't doing enough to help ease the burden. Frequent textbook revisions all but kill the market for a used textbook and force students to purchase new books at a far greater cost. Some revisions are necessary and understandable, but oftentimes, changes are made simply to drive up sales of new books.

One bright spot on the horizon is the growing segment of the market in e-books, reducing textbook costs through electronic content delivery. Even more promising is the effort to promote the use of "open source" textbooks, e-books that use freely licensed material to deliver free or minimally priced books that a faculty member can easily customize to suit the needs of an individual course.

The California State University system has been developing their Digital Marketplace system to take advantage of the benefits this new technology offers. Thanks to efforts by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the 20 Million Minds Foundation, the California Community College system has also been able to research and develop these low-cost open-source textbooks.

California has an existing grant program to help college students pay for textbooks. This program, called Cal Grant B, doesn't go as far as it used to thanks to skyrocketing textbook costs. The amount dedicated for each Cal Grant B recipient has stayed flat, but the costs it's expected to cover for a student's books have risen dramatically. A decrease in textbook costs would help taxpayer dollars go further and be more effective in helping as many students as possible.

Recently, the JLAC held a hearing to discuss this topic so important to all of California's students. Stakeholders from across the spectrum of textbook publishing and purchasing have been invited to speak. I'm glad the time has finally come to address this issue. California's students and their hard-working families should have access to the materials necessary to succeed in school at the lowest possible cost.

California needs to find policy solutions to help our college students, and the Legislature's responsibility to provide oversight of California's higher education systems demands that we find a way to control the exploding cost of textbooks.

TOM HARMAN is a state senator covering the 35th District, which includes Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley.

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