January 21, 2010

Cheap textbook program has cut costs despite initial opposition, colleges say

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By Erich Wagner
Erich@MarylandReporter.com

University officials reported Wednesday that the textbook affordability law passed last year has lowered costs for students on their campuses.

Eight months ago, Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, pushed a bill aimed at creating competition for textbook sales. It required required online posting of course materials for the benefit of students and competing booksellers, and promoted alternatives to bundles of multiple books often pushed by publishers.

Textbook publishers and Maryland schools lobbied against the measure, but university officials and store representatives have changed their tune.

Many reported that textbook costs for students have begun to drop, sales of used book have increased, and faculty members have become more aware and engaged in getting students the best overall value for course materials.

P.J. Hogan, associate vice chancellor for government relations for the University System of Maryland and a former senator, described this change in the faculty’s mindset as “cultural.”

“Now the faculty has to think about, ‘Is this the best thing at the best price to deliver the content of the course?'” Hogan said. “Students now have a lot more options, and are getting more options as time goes on.”

Student complaints have been scant since the changes mandated by the law went into effect, Hogan said. The few problems that people brought up with him were quickly rectified.

Private colleges have not been as quick in implementing the changes, said Tina Bjarekull, president of the Maryland Independent College and University Association. But they are “making a good faith effort to fall in line.” Bjarekull said the act is “working,” despite lower textbook revenues.

“[The law] has worked much more smoothly than we had thought,” she said.

These colleges are pushing their faculty to post textbooks for their courses by the first day of class registration. McDaniel College in Westminster has implemented a system where students can see the required textbooks and their prices as they sign up for classes, Bjarekull said.

The only major hiccup that university representatives reported was with textbook publishers. Although they have agreed to provide individual components of bundled textbooks, they have increased the price of the components substantially, said Kathleen Carey-Fletcher, director of auxiliary services for Montgomery College.

“One bundle was priced at $118, and the three individual components were all over $80,” Carey-Fletcher said.

The briefing also included reports on an emerging trend of textbook rental services in Maryland. Such programs provide books to students for roughly 40 percent of the list price. Students must return them at the end of the semester, or the rest of the list price is charged to their credit card.

Marcy Gannon, store manager at the College of Southern Maryland, said her school was in the process of greatly expanding its pilot rental program. The bookstore at the University of Maryland, College Park, which is run by Barnes and Noble, is beginning its own textbook rental pilot program.