New law aims to lower textbook costs

Sunday, June 29, 2008 | 5:30 p.m. CDT; updated 3:43 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

KANSAS CITY — A new Missouri law is giving college professors information they can use to potentially lower the price their students pay for textbooks and other study materials.

Gov. Matt Blunt last week signed into law the Textbook Transparency Act. The measure requires textbook publishers to provide professors who are ordering the books the wholesale price and exactly what changes have been made from a textbook’s previous editions.

The idea is that professors will be able to compare book content and choose cheaper books as long as they aren’t providing less educational value. Also, they could tell students to buy a used, earlier edition if the content hasn’t changed.

Assuming a professor used the same textbook year after year, that would also help the book’s resale value, allowing students to recoup more of their money if they sell back their books at the campus bookstore.

The law’s sponsor, Rep. Jake Zimmerman, D-Olivette, said his measure won’t help the price of new textbooks but could give students and their instructors more ways to save money.

“The perception is that professors have been left in the dark about how much a book is sold for,” Zimmerman said. “Publishing companies make the pitch on the books that they will make the most money from.”

Several publishers contacted by The Kansas City Star about the new law declined to comment.

The wholesale price of college textbooks has increased 32.8 percent since 1998, almost double the 18 percent rise for regular books, said the National Association of College Stores.

On top of that, bookstores typically mark up the price of a textbook by 25 percent, said Michelle Froese, public relations manager for the University of Missouri’s Student and Auxiliary Services, which oversees university bookstores in Columbia, Kansas City and Rolla.

Combined with rising costs of tuition and housing, textbook expenses have become a big drain on students across the country, with various surveys showing that the average student pays $900 a year for books.

“I think that is completely outrageous,” said Craig Stevenson, a University of Missouri student who helped lobby on behalf of the textbook bill.

Stevenson said he and some of his fellow students never shop at the campus bookstore, instead buying their books online.

“They save hundreds of dollars every semester,” he said.

Missouri’s law is modeled on similar measures passed in California, Washington and Arizona, all of which place limits on publishers, bookstores and faculty.

“I think it is a really good piece of legislation,” said Tony Luetkemeyer, the student representative on the University of Missouri Board of Curators.

He said he especially likes the provision that would make some CDs and workbooks typically bundled with textbooks optional or allow the student to buy those materials separately. He said he remembered once buying a package but never using the CD or workbook.

Froese said called the bill “a good first start” but said she wondered who would ensure the law was being enforced and that more efforts are needed to educate professors that they are largely responsible for what their students pay for books.

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