According to a recent study, UC students spend an average of $900 a year on textbooks.
Unsurprisingly, most students find this excessive — especially when tacked on to rising tuition fees and fluctuating housing costs. So, with students facing more fiscal strains, textbook sources are trying a multitude of approaches to undercut bookstores and gain a broader university base. And the students? They want the same quality of education without having to pay exaggerated costs.
The end of quarter buyback experience, according to Brittany Stone, a third-year psychology and sociology major at UCSB, just adds insult to the injury of overpriced books.
“I keep my books in pretty good condition and only get a quarter of the price back,” Stone said. “I get pretty upset when I have to buy a new book and the next year they’re not using it.”
The survey, conducted by CALPIRG, also found that as long as books are fairly priced, most UC students prefer traditional print sources over newer innovations. Nevertheless, the study revealed that UC students like to have electronic options as well — and when the cost of a paper textbook soars to prices similar to their digital counterparts, experts say students may choose the fancier product.
Due to this desire for more high-tech options and rising bound-book costs, some industry experts predict that students will face a host of new education technologies in the near future. This shift, they say, will likely force educators to wean their classes off paper textbooks and turn to technologies like electronic textbooks or open-source publications.
The Business of Books
UCSB Bookstore Director Mark Beisecker said textbook rental models have proven so valuable that the Bookstore may adopt a similar rental program in coming years. Beisecker said, however, that in a rapidly evolving industry where electronic textbooks may soon be the norm, such programs may come too late for bookstores like UCSB’s.
“When it happens, it will happen pretty quickly,” Beisecker said. “Unfortunately for the Bookstore, we will get cut out of the equation. They won’t want to partner with us, we will be used out.”
Textbookstop.com, an up-and-coming online textbook rental company, has worked with UCSB students for the past six quarters. But Textbookstop.com is just a drop in the barrel of online schoolbook sources; a multitude of other popular online textbook vendors and consultants like Chegg.com, BorrowMe.com, GauchoBooks and Flat World Knowledge have a fair share of the college market as well.
By renting schoolbooks, Textbookstop.com spokesman Mike Clear said, students can pay anywhere from 25 to 75 percent of what they would have paid to purchase the books off the shelf.
And his business, like many rental companies, ships books straight to a student’s door and then provides local designated drop-offs where the borrower can return the texts free of return shipping charges.
“There’s no sense in buying a text that you’re only going to use for 10 weeks, either getting stuck with it or getting paid less,” Clear said. “We have the value-added convenience of online pricing, local service … we have a local place to go if there’s a problem and when its time to return the book.”
Chegg.com’s success has been so pronounced that that Osman Rashid, the company’s co-founder, recently sent an open letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposing that California sponsor a statewide textbook rental program. The Governor has yet to respond.
If executed, Aayush Phumbhra, co-founder of Chegg.com, said the plan could potentially save California students $1.6 billion per year.
“We’re trying to appeal to the state,” Phumbhra said. “Textbooks are the second most expensive thing to tuition. This will save students hundreds of dollars.”
No More Paper?
The prices of books purchased through the UCSB Bookstore, Beisecker said, are very responsive to the demands of the publishers who set the prices — which is why costs at the bookstore are often higher than online alternatives.
In fact, CALPIRG is currently fighting for the ratification of the Accountability in College Textbook Publishing Practices Act, which would oblige publishers to disclose textbook prices to professors, preventing them from increasing prices during the following semester.
Emily Golding, a fourth-year communication and environmental studies major, said constantly fluctuating prices makes buying books cheaply a challenge. But, she said, today’s online options just don’t cut it.
“[Stores need to] stop having editors make new editions every year,” Golding said. “Then we could just buy used books. E-books would be good too, but I like to highlight.”
However, Tim Armstrong , a third-year film and media studies major studying abroad from New Zealand, said he’s in full support of the electronic trend.
“I’m all about saving the trees,” Armstrong said. “Everyone’s got a phone, they can access [PDFs] on their phone. It also doesn’t cost as much.”
Still, Beisecker said, “old fashioned text” has its advantages despite the cost — in convenience of use, ability to highlight and the option to sell it back to the bookstore. Ultimately, though, it’s all about the numbers. In the near future, he predicted, electronic textbooks will probably cost only about two-thirds the price of a print copy.
What’s Next for Text
CALPIRG campus organizer Cliff Whitlock said his organization encourages UCSB faculty to switch to using open source textbooks — schoolbooks that are posted online for students at either no cost or a convenient price.
“We’re working at getting at least two professors on campus to switch to open source text,” he said. “The more texts that are written by professors and available online as open source, the more professors will use them.”
Stone said that while online texts may have a financial advantage, reading a book is simply easier.
“I liked that [an electronic text] was cheaper, but it’s hard to read all that stuff online,” Stone said.
While they may take some getting used to, Joel Rothman, Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Dept. chair, said the latest alternatives for school materials show great promise for students and educators.
“Electronic resources are more responsive to change, more convenient, more mobile and more accessible, as well as being potentially much less costly,” Rothman said. “Having grown up in the age of books, if I were a student, the only downside to all of this for me would be that I prefer to sit down with a book in my hands and flip the pages, rather than hold an electronic instrument to read.”