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Money, money, money: Could e-textbooks save college students from rising costs?

Published: Sunday, Aug. 21 2011 4:29 p.m. MDT

Sidra Shah looks up what books she needs for her classes at the University of Utah bookstore.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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.

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