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Overpriced: College textbooks

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With increasing tuition rates and college costs, ballooning textbook prices impose additional burdens on students, especially those borrowing money to pay for school.

Since 2002, college textbook prices jumped up by 82 percent, while the Consumer Price Index, which measures overall inflation, rose by only 28 percent, a <I>USA Today<P> report pointed out.

The nonprofit National Association of College Stores conducted a survey in late 2012 and found that students spent an average of $662 a year on books and supplies. Other studies have higher estimates.

"College students and some of their professors are pushing back against ever-increasing textbook prices," the report said. Many professors are assigning less-expensive books and documents available on the internet.

Last spring, 34 percent of all college students illegally downloaded course readings from unauthorized websites, up from 20 percent in 2010, according to a survey conducted by the Book Industry Study Group, a trade association.

In the survey, 31 percent of students said they photocopied chapters from other students' textbooks this year, up from 21 percent in 2010.

The 2012 study by the non-profit National Survey of Student Engagement found that one of every four freshmen and one of every three seniors frequently did not purchase required academic materials because of high costs.

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, recently noted the Internet makes access to scholarly information much cheaper.

"Yet the college textbook industry has not only managed to insulate itself from this trend -- it has moved in the opposite direction, using digital content as a way to charge more money," Perry stated.

Software, with specific expiration dates, is often packaged with textbooks today. Combined with the continual publication of "updated" editions, the resale value of most textbooks drops dramatically, Perry added.

On Nov. 14, Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Al Franken, D-Minn., introduced the Affordable College Textbook Act in the U.S. Senate. Reps. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, and George Miller, D-Calif., introduced it in the House.

Their legislation would create "open textbooks," which college students could read, download and print. Using "open textbooks" to replace traditional textbooks could cut student costs between 80 percent and 100 percent, the sponsors contend.

All college campuses have university-affiliated bookstores. Some of those stores have exclusive rights from publishers to sell textbooks on campus, preventing competition from other stores. But students can shop around and buy books cheaper online or from friends.

Today, publishers print new editions of textbooks constantly, even when they are not really needed. Some publishers also offer professors catered lunches or gift cards if they assign their textbooks to students. There is little incentive to hold down costs if students are simply encouraged to run up more student debt to meet their needs.

In this snowballing digital age, there's no reason to force students to buy $100 or $200 printed texts. Professors who refuse to assign overpriced books can play a major role in controlling costs.


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