Erin McCarthy and Katie Lawrence scanned the 7-foot high aisles of textbooks, scoping out which ones they would need for their first semester at the University of Utah. The one for Math 1010 costs $194, Writing 2010, $117, and Biology 1210, $74.
Lawrence had been to the campus bookstore before, a couple weeks earlier, and bought half of the books she would need for her humanities class — only $40 for four books. She couldn't bear to spend more than that at one time. In fact, when she was with McCarthy, she didn't buy any.
"I didn't want to spend the money," Lawrence said. "I am procrastinating it."
Just over the past four years, textbook prices have gone up four times that of inflation, according to a new analysis by the Student Public Interest Research Groups. Students at four-year colleges now spend on average $1,137 on books and supplies every year, the CollegeBoard says, in spite of options like e-textbooks and renting textbooks.
With the continual rise in tuition, forking over hundreds of dollars for textbooks every semester has gotten even harder. A few students have even dropped out of some community colleges in California because of the extra cost of textbooks, MSNBC said earlier this week. And a Dallas representative who sponsored a bill aimed at making textbooks more affordable for students this coming fall told local media outlets that some students in community colleges there are paying more for books than for classes.
Earlier this year, a group of students began protesting the prices of textbooks at TextbookRebellion.org. More than 2,400 people have signed the petition for alternatives to expensive textbooks, and the group is set to start touring different campuses on the East and West Coast next month, starting with the University of Maryland on Sept. 6.
Some blame publishers, saying they come out with "new" editions too frequently that don't have many, if any, changes. Others say some professors aren't quite picky enough in their choices — requiring large, expensive books and only having students read a few chapters.
Jason Pickavance, associate professor of English at Salt Lake Community College, says one thing he feels most people don't take into account when considering the rise in textbook prices is how it might relate to the rise in adjunct faculty.
States have been disinvesting in higher education for more than a decade, with a record $5 billion set to be cut nationally from public higher education in the 2012 fiscal year. And with these cuts, institutions have been relying more and more on adjunct faculty to teach classes.
These faculty members sometimes come to an institution just weeks before school starts and don't have time to create their own curriculum and must rely more on textbooks to do the work for them, Pickavance said. He believes this is why textbooks seem to be getting larger and more expensive; they have to have a plethora of information about the subject — more than what a typical professor could even get through in a semester.
"Along with the specific curriculum standards of a course, the prices of educational materials are determined by the highly competitive nature of the market environment," said Tom Stanton, spokesman for McGraw-Hill Education, a large textbook publishing company.
"Price is also based on the length of the textbook and the number of copies produced."
Yet one solution to the traditional pricing and cost of textbooks could be e-textbooks. Pickavance hopes that one day e-textbooks could possibly give professors the option of picking a couple chapters from one book and a couple chapters of another book for a class.
He said for the past year or so, he has been using books in his classes that have the option of an electronic version for a fraction of the cost on coursesmart.com. Students can also print out parts of the books if they want to, he said. But he would like to see the cost of e-textbooks come down as well.
"If you saw a $38 book in Barnes and Noble on writing, you would think that was insane," Pickavance said. "But that's cheap in the world of textbooks."
Just last month, Amazon began renting textbooks on its Kindle e-reader for as little as 20 percent the cost of the listed print price.
Lawrence, for one, said she would be up for such an option — saying price would be a big factor in her decision. So would the ease of transport and the fact that she wouldn't be as likely to lose an e-book.
A national survey by Kelton Research last month found that 62 percent of students surveyed would study more often if they could access their textbooks digitally, and 54 percent would study more efficiently. They also found that 73 percent of college students would go to drastic measures to avoid carrying another heavy textbook, including giving up dating.
But while in theory this is perhaps the case, it may be a little too soon for a complete switch-over to the electronic textbook world.
Kim Zarkin, associate professor of communication at Westminster, selected a book for one of her classes last fall that was offered in a digital form for about $40 cheaper and said no one in her class of 29 bought the e-book version.
"Basically what they said is they like the tangible pages," Zarkin said. "Most talked about highlighting and how it helps them comprehend information."
Many of her students would have needed to access the electronic book on their laptops or computers as they didn't have e-readers and said they would be too tempted to check Facebook or email or browse the web instead of read for class.
They said having a book allows them to stay away from that distraction more easily.
According to a survey conducted in March by the National Association of College Stores, 75 percent of students still preferred print books over electronic ones.
"When these college students formed their study habits, the print book was still king," said Charles Schmidt, spokesman for the organization. He said anecdotally he has noticed that a lot of e-reader manufacturers are targeting primary educators instead of professors.
Earlier this year in Utah, a grant was given to a Viewmont Elementary kindergarten class to buy 27 iPads. But elementary, middle and high schools are trying out using iPads or other electronic tablets in different classrooms all over the country this year.
Schmidt believes higher education faculty have to become more comfortable in using e-textbooks before they will catch on.
Currently, most e-textbooks are just "glorified PDFs," Schmidt said. They would be more attractive if they had more interactivity, where students learning about astronomy could click on something on the page and be taken to a live shot of the Hubble Telescope or have an interactive game that teaches them more on the subject.
Anthony Paluso, a senior at the U,, said he wishes there were an easier way to highlight and make notes on e-textbooks.
Because of these reasons, Schmidt believes e-textbooks are at least a year out before they take off.
While e-textbooks currently make up about 3 percent of total course material sales for his organization, he expects the number to grow 10 to 15 percent by fall 2012.
But in limbo, textbook rentals have become quite popular — they are normally much cheaper than buying a new or used textbook, and they are still in a version most college-age students today are comfortable studying from.
During the fall of 2009, 300 college stores offered textbook rentals. Last year, 2,220 did.
At the University of Utah Campus Store, 30 percent of textbooks are now available for rental, said Mike Cherry, marketing director of the bookstores, and they are normally 40 percent the cost of a new book.
The price attracted Alexander Ricketts, a sophomore at the school, to try out a rental for the first time earlier this week for almost half the price of buying a new version of the book at the store. He said he doesn't mind not being able to take notes directly in the book; he plans on using sticky notes.10 comments on this story
Cherry said the number of rental textbooks has grown since the bookstore started offering them about two years ago. At the same time, the bookstore is buying fewer new books as rentals and e-textbooks have become available and more popular, along with options for students to buy books from places like halfprice.com.
Cherry believes e-textbooks are the future — not only are they environmentally friendly, they also allow professors to customize their classes more.
"Last year was the year of the textbook rental," Schmidt said. "Maybe next year will be the year of the e-textbook."