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Textbook costs getting hard to cover

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

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Most high school seniors know where they'll be spending the next four years of their lives -- college acceptance letters went out earlier this month. Now all they -- and their parents -- have to do is figure out how to pay for it.

One big and growing chunk of that tab is textbooks. The typical undergraduate book bill is $900 a year and growing. So today, a group of college professors went public with a call for low-priced and free texts online. Congress is trying to ease the book burden too.

Marketplace's Jill Barshay has the story.


Jill Barshay: David Kim is an 18 year old freshman at New York University. He's buying a philosophy book at the campus store. Last semester Kim forked out $400 for textbooks.

David Kim: This semester around $500, which is pretty big.

Textbook prices have been rising at about 6 percent a year. The tab for a typical math and science book now approaches $180.

Students like Kim feel trapped. Professors choose the books, but students have to pay for them. The only the hope for a break is to find used copies.

Erik Frank is a former executive at Prentice Hall, the nation's biggest publisher in the $5.5 billion textbook market. He says prices started skyrocketing after the used book market moved to the Internet. College bookstores started scooping up books and redistributing them nationally.

Erik Frank: And so you started to see an increase in the supply of used books, so that starts to cut into publisher profits. And so what do publishers do? Well, as publicly traded companies needing to sustain a quarterly bottom line, they react defensively and they increase prices.

And publishers come out with ever more expensive new editions every two to three years to try to kill the used book market.

Bruce Hildebrand is executive director of Higher Education for the American Association of Publishers. He lobbies for the college textbook industry. He says cheaper textbooks are available.

Bruce Hildebrand: Like an Introductory Psychology and their prices at retail range from the mid-20's to 120. And the studies show that the faculty inevitably, invariably, will place greater priority on what is best for their students than they will on price.

Hildebrand says it costs a lot to produce multi-color glossy pages and the other materials teachers want, like lecture notes, PowerPoint slides and exam questions. In effect, students are paying higher prices to make life easier for their professors. They usually don't even know what the prices are.

Congress is trying to change that. It's finishing an education spending bill that would require publishers to disclose prices upfront. Right now that's not part of the sales pitch.

Victoria Anderson: There is a great deal of courting that goes on.

That's Victoria Anderson. She's an English Professor at Loyola University Chicago.

Anderson: It's not uncommon to walk into the mail room, for example, and see some Godiva chocolates or some brownies, courtesy of some publisher. And, you know, we're taken to lunch.

Anderson says she'd like to see price tags on book samples so she could factor cost into her decisions. She's selecting a writing composition book to be used by 1,500 students. In this case, price might not make a difference.

Anderson: With the handbooks, not so much. They're all expensive.

Even if Washington's fix doesn't lower book prices, the marketplace is coming up with its own solutions.

Eric Frank, the former Prentice Hall executive just launched a new publishing house, Flatworld Knowledge, that will give away college texts online for free. He hopes profits will come from the study aids sold on the side.

In New York, I'm Jill Barshay for Marketplace.

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