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UMd. Students Protest High Cost of Textbooks

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Students at the University of Maryland are opting-out of buying textbooks because of the expense.  Photo by  Yevgeniy Trapeznikov

Students at the University of Maryland are opting-out of buying textbooks because of the expense. Photo by Yevgeniy Trapeznikov

Published on: Wednesday, January 29, 2014

By Yevgeniy Trapeznikov, Special to The Sentinel

A new study shows students at the University of Maryland may be opting-out of purchasing required textbooks because of the high cost.  On Jan. 29 the Maryland branch of Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG) in partnership with the UMD Student Government Association (SGA) held a public rally at the University of Maryland campus in support of so-called Open Source Textbook project.

The Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs) are independent statewide student organizations that work on issues like environmental protection, consumer protection, hunger and homelessness.

Kelly McCluer, Maryland representative of PIRG, and Meenu Singh, Vice President of the UMD Student Government Association (SGA), released results of its latest national survey of students regarding college textbook costs and alternatives.

In recent years the cost of purchasing textbooks has increased dramatically. An average student spends $1,200 per year – which constitutes about 39 percent of tuition and fees at a community college and 14 percent of tuition and fees at a four-year public institution. Over the past decade increase in textbook prices has been nearly three times the rate of inflation.

“I believe textbooks are expensive at UMD. I prefer to buy used books on Amazon or Ebay at a much cheaper price. Depending on the condition of a textbook, price difference may vary from $50 to $100,” said Ammar Alam, UMD sophomore.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) of 2008 requires textbook publishers to disclose book prices to professors at marketing stage and allows students to see those prices during registration. According to a government study report, the measures contributed to greater transparency and helped students buy used books and enjoy renting opportunities. Another outcome of the HEOP implementation was the fact that publishers began offering books and supplementary material individually as opposed to bundles, a practice blamed by PIRG for driving the college book prices in some cases up to 50 percent.

“I just got a genetics book on rental and I paid $150. It’s ridiculous considering it is just rental,” said Alexandra Urman, UMD junior studying microbiology. “Getting textbooks from alternative providers is definitely cheaper. I have just got my math book through a book drop for $30. And I got both the book and solutions supplement. Here, at UMD book store, it is like $170. You can feel the difference,” added Urman.

However, the PIRG study found such cost-reducing opportunities short-term and virtually ineffective to stop textbook prices from further skyrocketing.

According to PIRG study, the underlying flaw why renting and used book purchases do not adequately work in reining in the prices is the lack of the fundamental marketing principle. Students, who ultimately buy textbooks, cannot exercise their rightful consumer control. 

“The professor chooses the book while the student is forced to pay for it. As students are unable to choose more affordable option, the publishers are able to drive prices higher without fear of repercussions,” the report, prepared by PIRG, described prevailing situation in the textbook market.

Such plight is found to have perilously adverse effect on the students’ academic performance and generally endangers accessibility of quality higher education in the country.

In its late-2013 survey, which included 2039 students from more than 150 campuses, PIRG found that 65 percent of the respondents decided not to buy textbooks because they were too expensive. About 94 percent of those who did not buy textbooks said they were concerned about their academic grades. And nearly half said they were “significantly” concerned – underlining the fact that students “knowingly” accepted the risk of a lower grade as a result of not getting required textbook.

Destinee Dignan, a junior student majoring in psychology at UMD, said that she only bought books in portions as she needed them.

“I have to prioritize my classes because I cannot buy every textbook. I do not really know what the professors are talking about if I cannot read along or read ahead. I work as well, but I can only afford so much because I cannot spend all my income on textbooks,” said Dignan.

PIRG emphasized that even opportunities, such as availability of rental stores, which have grown ten-fold in just over the past four years, thanks to funding by U.S. Department of Education, had been able to go so far. The five textbook publishing companies, who control over 80 percent of $8.8 billion market, continued to raise college book prices as they retained unparalleled rights over new releases. 

PIRG estimates show that by releasing new edition every three-four years – which costs 12 percent more on average as compared with the previous book – enables those companies to drive prices on used and rented material as well. And even proliferation of the digitized content (e-books) could not produce desirable results as “the companies’ venture into e-textbooks carried on the practices they used to monopolize the print market.”

The only effective way, according to PIRG, is wider adoption by the country’s educational institutions of the “open textbooks” – college texts that are released under an open source license allowing free digital access, low-cost printing, and customization by instructors.

The PIRG’s survey found that 82 percent of students said they would do significantly better in a course if the textbook was available online.

According to the study, open textbooks, available online with optional hard copy, is the only viable means to curb otherwise runaway college book prices. Rentals and e-books cannot offer such fix.

Recently, the use of open textbooks attracted federal, state and institutional investment. With steadily growing numbers of such books used in classrooms, there are about 140 titles available under an open license in the University of Minnesota Open Textbook Library alone.

“The open textbook pilot is a victory. A big part of the move towards open source is changing the culture surrounding how faculty choose textbooks, and our pilot addresses the education and collaboration that is needed for that transformation,” said Meenu Singh, SGA Vice President for Academic Affairs.

Despite impressive returns and savings, which the use of open textbook has been able to demonstrate lately, the program has to overcome two major problems – relatively high initial investment and involvement of both faculty and students to enable pilot program to mature into an integral part of higher education.

The first problem is frequently dealt with the financial help of federal and state support. The second one calls for close communication between different members of campus communities.

The University System of Maryland recently held a seminar for their faculty, connecting experts from the Open Textbook Library and university staff as part of The Maryland Open-Source Textbook Initiative. Professors and other administrators were able to ask questions and learn more about the open textbook process. This workshop was the first step of a three-part program to engage faculty and evaluate the potential for open textbooks on system campuses. The initiative was originally developed by students, who also organized the campaign and brought the proposal to the attention of campus and system administrators.

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