Thursday, August 14, 2008

State auditor suggests textbook pricing reforms

Colleges, professors and campus bookstores need to do more to slow rapidly rising textbook prices, the state auditor said Tuesday.

In a 102-page report requested by California legislators, the auditor's office concluded that persistently ascending prices haven't been properly addressed by colleges and universities, despite laws intended to force the issue.

Among the auditor's recommendations:

Require professors to submit textbook information to campus bookstores on time, which would allow the stores to collect more used books from students and pay students more for those textbooks.

Remind faculty members of state laws that encourage them to consider prices when assigning textbooks. Many professors are unaware of those laws, the auditor found.

Schools should promote the use of free online textbooks as alternatives to traditional books, which can cost students more than $900 per year.

The report is the latest government attempt to cap the rise in textbook prices.

Congress this month reauthorized the Higher Education Act, the newest version of which would require more pricing information from textbook publishers. The legislation is awaiting President Bush's signature.

And the California Legislature has, in the past year, introduced a flurry of textbook bills, including one adopted last year that cracked down on publisher tactics aimed at selling newer, more expensive textbooks. That law's sponsor, AdvertisementAssemblyman Jose Solorio, D-Santa Ana, lauded the auditor's report and said he hoped it would persuade colleges to change their practices.

"I still see college students spending over $1,000 a year on textbooks," Solorio said, adding that he plans to introduce a bill to cut bookstores' profit margins.

"Sometimes government does need to take action to correct the marketplace," he said.

Publishers have been criticized for their roles in textbook pricing. Lawmakers and student leaders have fought against tactics such as "bundling," where a book is available only in a package with computer disks and other materials that raise the price.

But publishers found fault with some parts of Tuesday's report, saying that professors have to be trusted to choose textbooks that are best for their students.

"They didn't ask why (expensive textbooks) were chosen," said Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers. "Faculty choose those books because they best suit the education needs of their students."

But the auditors noted that many faculty members seemed unaware of rising textbook prices and their role in holding down student costs. Textbook price increases have significantly outpaced the growth in median income, the study concluded.

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