Lowering the cost of college textbooks

June Kapitan, owner of Quantumbooks, stocks a shelf with textbooks in Boston.

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Tess Vigeland: Parents paying for their kids' college know the drill. You pay the tuition, room and board, and stock up on all those dorm room essentials. Then your kid gets the semester reading list. Textbooks can add hundreds of dollars to college bills. The average price of new textbooks has gone up 7 1/2 percent the past two years in a row according to the Labor Department. That's many times the rate of inflation. Well, a new law took effect this month that aims to soften the blow. From the Marketplace Education Desk, Amy Scott reports.


Amy Scott: Michael Spinelli studies drama at New York University. He'll be a sophomore this fall. Standing outside the library, he recalls one class that required 22 books.

Michael Spinelli: A lot of them were like over $100. It ended up being almost a thousand dollars in textbooks last semester.

The average college student spent more than $600 on textbooks last school year. That's according to consumer research group Student Monitor. The new law forces publishers to "unbundle" books so you don't have to buy the DVD and study guide with your psychology text. It asks colleges to give students a list of required books when they register for classes. That way they'll have months, rather than a few weeks to shop around for the best deals.

Nicole Allen: Students can literally save hundreds by shopping around online for used books or renting. So at least the savvy ones are gonna get a huge advantage from that.

Nicole Allen is textbook advocate for the Student Public Interest Research Groups. She says the law also makes publishers tell professors how much books cost. Before, they had to ask or hunt for prices online.

Allen: What they'll have now is the information on the table right in front of them. So having that information will make it very easy to consider cost on behalf of students.

And if they do, Allen says that could pressure publishers to lower their prices. But will professors really change their reading lists?

Mark Tuckerman: Probably not that much.

Mark Tuckerman teaches chemistry at NYU. He says he'll continue to assign what he sees as the best books. His favorite runs $173 at the university bookstore -- more if you throw in a study guide and student access kit. Whatever that is. Tuckerman would rather see publishers offer students different versions -- cheaper digital editions or loose leaf rather than bound.

Tuckerman: I wouldn't be put in the position of having to think about the price, which I don't want to. Right? I want to choose it based on content.

Textbook publishers say even before the law kicked in they were offering lower-cost options. Students can now buy some books online by the chapter, or rent books for as little as half-price. Bruce Hildebrand is with the Association of American Publishers. Even though new book prices are rising, he says students actually spend less today than they did four years ago.

Bruce Hildebrand: They're finding bargains online. They are buying more used books, frankly. And they are beginning to purchase the digital e-books in particular.

Plenty of them aren't buying books at all. Michael Spinelli, the NYU drama major, says last year he and some friends got creative.

Spinelli: We had the same class, and we all shared textbooks. Things like that. Like my roommates and I, we all shared textbooks. Just because it's so expensive.

At least they did the reading. Studies by the college bookstore operator Follett have shown that 15 percent of students don't buy the required books or access them at all.

In New York, I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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