As textbook prices skyrocket, lawmakers seek solutions
By Mary Whitfill, News Staff
When freshman Bouvé College of Health Sciences student Kayla Sullivan went to buy books for her first semester at Northeastern, she winced as she handed the cashier her credit card, for a charge of $480.
“I didn’t even buy one of the books I was told to. If I had, my books would have cost over $550,” Sullivan said. “I was so surprised by the amount I had to pay. It wasn’t even an option for me to buy used books.”
Textbook prices have risen faster than tuition, housing costs and health care costs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the phenomenon is beginning to catch the eyes of local politicians, who are seeking to form an exploratory committee to examine what can be done to reduce costs.
Over the last 30 years, textbook prices have risen 812 percent, a nine-fold increase, according to the American Enterprise Institute.
Sullivan’s costly purchase is nearly on par with national averages, closely in line with the results of a College Board study that says the average textbook and materials cost per student is $1,200 per year.
In efforts to make the costs of textbooks more realistic for college students in Massachusetts, state Representative Walter Timilty proposed a bill in January, which is currently sitting in the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Higher Education. If passed, the bill will establish a special committee to explore various ways to reduce the cost of textbooks and other materials.
“Students are very much struggling just to pay for the costs of these textbooks,” Timilty said. “With the economy the way it is, students can’t afford to pay for them on their own and parents are having a hard time right now too, prices are increasing.”
The established commission would consist of 15 members to be appointed by the governor, and would include state congressional members, representatives of the college textbook publishing industry and one student trustee of a public college like the University of Massachusetts.
“I think the best resources [on the committee will be] the people involved. There will be one member of the University of Massachusetts administration, one member of the State College Council of Presidents, et cetera and these people are experts in the field,” Timilty said.
Not only have textbook prices skyrocketed in recent years, but students of the digital age are also facing issues unique to a time of online reading and computer-graded homework.
Textbook access codes are a relatively new advancement in the world of higher education. A unique series of letters and numbers, access codes allow students to access online content for a course, as well as additional material and, occasionally, a copy of an e-book. The development of access codes has made the purchase of used or rented textbooks unrealistic as these codes can only be used to access material once.
“I was expecting to buy some of my books used or for discount prices, but I needed access codes for all of them, which you can only get in the new ones,” Sullivan said. “My lab manuals also have to be bought new because we have to complete the labs in the book to turn them in. Basically, I could only buy one used book.”
Recognizing that the increased costs of textbooks can be a financial hindrance to students, the Northeastern Bookstore supports a book buyback program for books that the store can then resell as used the next semester. Unfortunately, there are strict regulations on which books are eligible for the buyback and the selling price rarely comes close to the original cost.
“Last semester I was able to sell some books back, but for 25 percent or less than what I bought it for,” Drazy Medina, a sophomore behavioral neuroscience major, said. “I couldn’t sell back one of my books because a new edition was coming out. Another time I bought a $100 book that was custom for my class, but it was almost the exact same as a book I could have bought on Amazon for a lot cheaper and I couldn’t sell it back to the bookstore because it was custom.”
The Northeastern Student Government Association passed legislation in the spring of 2011 called the Faculty Textbook Agreement, which urged faculty members to obtain not only the most educationally appropriate textbooks, but also the most affordable whenever possible.
Currently, the College Expectations Committee, a branch of Academic Affairs, is working towards the adoption of the Faculty Textbook Agreement in every college in the university, SGA Vice President for Academic Affairs Kristina Lopez said.
“SGA is always advocating for more affordable textbook options, through college expectations and senate legislation,” Lopez said. “The administration is generally understanding to the need for cheaper textbook options, many professors include older editions as well as online options for their students, which tend to be cheaper.”
There is no date set for when the state joint committee will hear discussion on the proposed bill. In light of President Barack Obama’s call for educational cost reduction in last month’s State of the Union address, Timilty said he hopes that this kind of action will take a place on the national stage.
“If it is successful here I think there is a great chance that this could go national. An idea has to germinate somewhere and if we can work it out here then there is a chance it will spread,” Timilty said. “I don’t know what the chances are of textbook prices going down because we haven’t done it yet, but the best thing we can do is try.”