Alternative textbooks: Online resources can lessen the cost of higher education

Sarah Blaskey, Managing Editor

When students returned to their classrooms this semester, they said that one of their biggest headaches was textbook prices.  It is a sentiment shared by many across the country and some lobbyists and legislators are beginning to notice and take action.

Textbook wholesale prices rose at more than four times the rate of inflation from 1990 to 2009, according to calculations done by the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups. Now, the average student spends $900 on textbooks annually. That is around one third of what a full-time transfer student at Madison Area Technical College would pay in tuition.

In some cases the cost of textbooks is even more drastic. Bridget Timm, a second semester liberal arts transfer student, signed up for sociology this spring because it is a prerequisite for other classes she wants to take. When she looked at the required reading list it became clear that her $500 Intro to Sociology class would end up costing quite a bit more.

“The hard copy (of the textbook) is like $300 and then (the instructor listed) two other books that have articles and stuff like that, which were like 150 bucks a piece,” Timm explained. “Total it is pretty close to coming to be as expensive as the course, or even a little bit more with the tax and everything, to buy the books.”

Although Timm’s story seems extreme, it is one that could become more common if things do not change. The cost of tuition is not increasing ant the same rates as textbooks according to Jacob Weigandt, student senate president.

“If this trend continues as it is, you could expect in years to come you would see textbooks costing more than the actual tuition. Which obviously restricts the accessibility of higher education,” Weigandt said.

Seventy-six percent of Madison College students said that they had put off buying a textbook due to cost according to a 2007 survey conducted by student senate. This means that all of those students showed up for the first day of a class unprepared, disrupting their ability to get the most from their education. Many of the students who indicated that textbook affordability was a concern also stated that they would like to see other, more affordable, options like textbook rental programs. Since receiving that feedback, offering more affordable textbook options has been a primary focus for the student senate.

Cost conscious students are encouraged to buy used books whenever possible and to sell them back at the end of the semester. However, it is often difficult to find used books because they sell out quickly.  Also, books are updated often forcing bookstores to upgrade their stock. After that it is virtually impossible to sell back the out-dated edition.

The other option available for some Madison College classes is textbook rentals. Certain instructors have informed the bookstore that they would like their textbook available to rent for 50 percent of the price of buying the book. The bookstore will automatically rent the books to students if it is an option. In that case, special requests must be made to buy the book. However, only about one-fourth of the textbooks used at Madison College fit the criteria for the rental program, Weingandt explained.

“Offering rental textbooks does not deal with the trend: the rising cost of textbooks,” Weigandt said.  “You offer [textbooks] at 50 percent of an exponentially climbing number. It’s still climbing exponentially.”

During a presentation in front of Madison College faculty in the fall of 2010, Weigandt explained another option for online access to college level texts.

Open textbooks are available free online under an open source license and are offered in hard copy versions for just the cost of printing (often $20 -$40).

The texts can also be printed out and modified by instructors. Open textbooks could reduce the average amount spent by students on textbooks per year by 80 percent. More than 1,000 professors used open textbooks last fall and dozens of high-quality books are already available according to U.S. Public Interest Research Groups.

Student Senate and the WISPIRG representatives at Madison College are working hard to educate and push for more affordable textbook options. Faculty at Madison College is encouraged to sign statements of intent, indicating interest in using open textbooks in their classroom. This action will help WISPIRG lobby on a state and national level for more funding towards an open-textbook campaign.

The long-term goal of this project is to lower the prices of textbooks in general. Only a nationwide campaign, with participation from students and faculty can create this change according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups.

“I don’t think we should abandon the rental program. There’s a lot of benefits. … But I do think open textbooks are the most logical solution to solve this problem in the long run,” Weigandt said. “The thing with open textbooks is it creates competition in the market.”