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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Text message: Cut costs

When statistics students at Spokane Community College went to get textbooks in January, they found a new alternative to new and used: rentals.

Now, one term later, more students in Diana Osborne’s statistics class rent textbooks than buy them.

“It’s a very expensive textbook,” she said. “It costs $151 to buy the textbook new, $120 to buy the textbook used, and $51 to rent it for a quarter.”

The rentals are a new and limited program, both at SCC and other campuses around the country. But they are emerging among several alternatives to the traditional textbook model after years of sharp criticism from students and parents. Publishers and bookstores are offering more no-frills options, less expensive bundling, and expanded efforts to establish used-book markets.

A new congressional report lauds such progress and urges more of it. But it also envisions an environment in which the traditional textbook vanishes or becomes much less common as educational materials become available in a national online network. The time to work on that is now, the report says.

“All stakeholders – students, faculty, colleges, bookstores and publishers as well – are victims of the failure of this market,” the report reads. “What is needed is a collaborative effort to build a true 21st-century solution – a national digital marketplace.”

Bookstore officials say the old-fashioned textbook may not disappear so quickly, and they say some technologies like e-books haven’t been quick to catch on. Cathy Scott, director of stores for the Community Colleges of Spokane, said that while the district’s rentals have been popular, attempts to offer online course materials have not, at least not yet.

She said the CCS system added 12 e-book titles this year. “And we sold eight of them – eight individual copies – this quarter,” she said.

Still, changes to a model that is so clearly frustrating to students and parents seem inevitable. The congressional report says the “political imperative” to control textbook prices “cannot be overstated.”

Quinn Challinor, a Spokane Falls Community College student who’s wrapping up an associate’s degree, says she has spent about $250 per quarter on books. Many of them couldn’t be resold because of new editions, she said, and some were barely used at all.

“It sucks to have to buy brand-new books and not use them for three months – and then they’re obsolete,” she said.

Several solutions

The congressional report, commissioned a year ago, notes that the typical student spends between $700 and $1,000 a year on books.

It encourages colleges, publishers and bookstores to provide more stable markets for used books, to adopt book-selection policies that consider low-cost or no-cost ways of providing information, and to improve financial aid.

Textbook prices have risen faster than the rate of inflation – though not faster than tuition and overall college expenses. Still, the report said, textbook prices are a visible and controversial part of paying for college, and because a lot of those purchases are made out-of-pocket, they can add a disproportionate burden on students.

“Prices are already too high for low- and moderate-income families and pressing middle-income families as well,” the report said.

Several states have undertaken initiatives or passed laws to address textbook prices. Washington lawmakers have approved measures in recent sessions requiring bookstores to sell textbooks separate from extras such as software and CDs and requiring publishers to provide price information to faculty.

Dave Rosenfeld is national program director for the Student Public Interest Research Groups, a coalition of student groups that has pressed for reforms in textbook pricing for several years. He said the report compiles a lot of the best ideas for “breaking the stranglehold” of publishers, and he foresees a time when experiments with no-cost, open-source materials are much more common.

He said that focusing on used books and digital options are the two most promising ways to have a broad effect on prices. His group also has supported rental programs and found in a survey of colleges that students pay about a third as much to rent as to buy.

“But universities have been slow to pick it up,” he said.

Attempts to contact bookstore officials at the University of Idaho and Eastern Washington University were unsuccessful Wednesday, as were attempts to reach Barnes & Noble, which runs Washington State University’s bookstores.

Bill Semmler, the manager of the bookstore at North Idaho College, said he considered book rentals a couple of years ago and concluded it would be too difficult. The rental program requires the faculty to commit to using the same book for two or three years, and the store must commit to buying and carrying enough books to rent.

Although NIC didn’t pursue rentals, Semmler said his store has tried to increase the proportion of used books for sale and has begun arranging the sale of custom books – paperback versions of hardback texts with only the material requested by NIC faculty.

“Because it isn’t a comprehensive volume, because they’re not fancy … it does enable us to purchase those books more cheaply,” he said.

‘Cheap textbooks’

Booksellers emphasize that text prices haven’t risen more than college expenses generally and that they’re a relatively small proportion of overall college costs.

The report shows that average four-year school’s tuition has increased nearly 250 percent in the last 20 years, while textbook costs have risen about 100 percent. The Consumer Price Index increased 65 percent in that time period.

Bruce Hildebrand, spokesman for the Association of American Publishers, says textbook publishers are already doing a lot of what’s recommended in the report. He said the increase in no-frills textbooks has already eaten into the bottom line for publishers, who are responding to the desire for less expensive and more adaptable options.

He also said textbooks typically account for 3 percent to 5 percent of college costs and should be kept in perspective.

“There’s plenty of cheap textbooks, but the issue is: Do the cheapest textbooks educate a student so they can pass their class and go on to graduate from college?” he said.

He said the idea of a post-textbook market isn’t troubling to publishers, who are already investigating digital options for delivering the information in their books. But he said that truly establishing a digital marketplace will be complicated.

Scott, the CCS stores director, emphasized how complicated and unusual the textbook market is. Faculty members try to select the best book – but they don’t shell out the money for it. Students have no choice, or few choices, but to buy them. And schools or the corporations that run the bookstores face a tenuous market for used books, giving the uncertainty of book choices or new editions year to year.

She said the congressional report does a good job of outlining the situation and some creative ideas, but an overall solution could be elusive.

“I’m not sure what the answer is,” she said.

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