According to a recent national survey, 70% of US college students say they sometimes skip buying textbooks because of the cost. Brooklyn College (BC) students grappling with sky-high textbook prices are trying now to tap a major new ally: their professors.
The hope, says Abraham Esses, a junior and student government president at BC’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is to enlist faculty in answering the question, “How do we get the cost of books down without impinging upon the rights of teachers and making sure the quality of the classroom doesn’t decrease?”
Part of the answer, student leaders say, can come from used books. Moshe Nathan, the student government’s chair of academic affairs and a senior, lays out the math. A professor who assigned the seventh edition of the classic Quantitative Chemical Analysis, which sells for about $200, said yes when asked if the sixth edition, which can be found online for $4.99, could be used instead. Some professors use their personal websites or the BC WebCentral portal to announce, in advance, that older versions of textbooks are fine.
Other professors don’t recommend new texts at all. Joshua Fogel, a Brooklyn College professor of finance and business management, says he stopped assigning the latest version of his core text when it climbed above $150.
“When you’re teaching undergraduates, in particular,” says Fogel, “there’s no latest development in the field that’s going to rapidly change things.” Even if there are minor adjustments, he says, when you add up what all the students in one of his classes would collectively pay for that additional knowledge, it totals around $3,500. “I don’t think it’s worth it,” Fogel says.
That’s not to say, adds the business professor, that opting for older editions won’t create additional pedagogical burdens. Faculty might need to create syllabi with references to multiple editions, or may need to update a book’s software-based exercises. For an older edition, professors might have to buy their own desk copy rather than rely upon publisher copies. “But in life,” says Fogel, “you have to make choices.”
Nationally, exasperation over textbook prices has been brewing for years and has sometimes bubbled up from within the industry itself. In 2003, Erwin Cohen, former editorial director of the Academic Press, wrote in The New York Times that costs could be cut by stripping texts to their essentials and sticking with editions for longer time periods. “Publishers release new editions of successful textbooks every few years – not to improve content, although that may be a by-product – but to discourage the sales of used books by making them seem obsolete.”
In 2008, passage of the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act required publishers to start telling professors what’s changed between versions. Moreover, it mandated the offering of texts unbundled from the supplemental materials, like CDs, that the US Government Accountability Office found to be a major factor in the tripling of book prices from 1986 to 2004. The bill also encourages the posting of course listings and required materials early enough that students can use them in planning their course selections. But the statute has no real enforcement provisions, and observers at Brooklyn College say that compliance is mixed. Professors may struggle with the technical side of detailing their courses online, and there’s little information available for judging competing textbooks.
Few professors they’ve approached, say student government leaders, are unsympathetic. “I think the biggest problem,” says the student government’s chair, Nathan, “is a lack of awareness.”
According to a study by the National Association of College Stores, students who reported comparison shopping for course materials increased from 57% in 2011 to 67% last year. Students can also opt to rent used or new books through vendors like Amazon.com, Chegg.com or the Brooklyn College Barnes & Noble.
Fogel, a business professor, says that he skips assigning homework from books for the first two weeks of class to allow time for students to hunt down the best deal, whether it’s in the college store or Bangalore.
Beyond books, professors are being encouraged to rethink the coursework packets of articles and papers that can come with their own high costs. Miriam Deutch, an associate professor in BC’s library department, says that classroom faculty should consider providing links to materials in databases like JSTOR, LexisNexis and Academic Search Complete.
“We’re already paying for them,” notes the librarian, via BC’s fees for online journal access. Accessibility of materials, she suggests, should be a factor in syllabi decisions: “If it’s not in here, maybe there’s a substitute for it…and you should consider updating your reading list.”
The subject of textbook choice, student leaders acknowledge, is bound up with questions of academic freedom. But BC student leaders say that their focus is on a cultural shift, rather than mandates.
Publishers say that they’re doing their part to keep costs down, through e-books, black-and-white editions, stand-alone chapters and more. Still, they warn, the way textbooks are now produced can cost in the neighborhood of a million dollars per title.
Some universities think it’s worth experimenting with other models and are asking academics to rethink how textbooks are made.
Pilot projects at SUNY and Philadelphia’s Temple University give faculty a few thousand dollars and the aid of peer reviewers, librarian-editors and graphic designers to develop new textbooks, available digitally at no charge. Rice University’s OpenStax College is aimed at creating freely available textbooks for core introductory classes, and the University of Minnesota is encouraging its faculty to help build a catalog of open-access textbooks.
The Open College Textbook Act, introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin in 2009, would have provided federal grants to faculty who write textbooks made freely available online. The PSC and its national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, supported the bill and gave input on its design, but the measure failed to win passage.
Right now, Brooklyn College student leaders are eager to draw a critical mass of attention to a range of possibilities beyond the new-book, publisher-driven textbook market. Toward that end, they are speaking at faculty orientations, engaging in one-on-one conversations with professors and sponsoring book fairs to spotlight cheaper options.
Student leaders and school librarians are also teaming up on a proposal for funding to encourage Brooklyn College faculty to create and curate open-access textbooks.
Brooklyn College librarians describe themselves as eager allies in student-driven efforts to make low and no-cost texts more accessible. Doing so, they say, reflects libraries’ enduring roles as crafters of academic collections: librarians will likely be the ones to maintain those new resources over the long haul.
“The neediness is desperate,” says Deutch, the librarian. “The lines for reserves,” where students are given two hours to read or copy a book, “are out the door. They’re willing to wait in line to use the books here in the library. In the past, we had to rely on the publishing industry, but what’s different now is that we have options. Things are a click away.”