On Friday afternoons between work and rugby practice, Brittany Wolfe would rush to the campus library hoping copies of her advanced algebra textbook had not all been checked out by like-minded classmates.
It was part of the math major’s routine last quarter at the University of California, Los Angeles: Stand in line at the reserve desk in the library’s closing hours with the goal of borrowing a copy for the weekend.
The alternative was to buy a $120 book and sell it back for far less. If she could sell it back at all.
“It’s like this terrible game of catch your books when you can,” said Wolfe, a new graduate who estimates she saved $800 a year using books on reserve and who now shares textbook tips as a counselor to incoming UCLA students. “It’s frustrating when you’re already stressed about school. Being stressed about textbooks doesn’t seem right.”
Maybe, just maybe, relief is on the way.
A new federal law requires publishers to provide textbook price information to professors and calls on colleges to identify course textbooks during registration, giving students more time to shop around.
Experts call it a step in the right direction, but not a game-changer.
At the same time, a robust online marketplace of used books and recent inroads by textbook rental programs give students more options than ever. The prospect of digital books and slow-but-steady growth in free online “open” content loom as developments that could upend the textbook landscape and alleviate the perennial problem of rising prices.
“Change is coming, but it’s not going to happen immediately,” said David Lewis, dean of the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis University Library and assistant vice president for digital scholarly communications at Indiana University. “If you’re in junior high school, you can be sure it’ll be better. If you’re in high school, there’s a shot. If you’re starting college as a freshman, you might see it as a senior. It’s on more and more people’s agenda.”
According to a 2005 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, college textbook prices increased at twice the rate of inflation over the previous two decades, though not as dramatically as tuition.
More recent data from the National Association of College Stores show textbooks costs climbed 14 percent from the 2006-2007 academic year to 2008-2009. A 2010 survey by the group found students spent an average of $667 per year on required course materials including textbooks, although other studies have put the figure at about $900.
In 2008, Congress responded by including textbook-affordability provisions in the Higher Education Opportunity Act.