Wednesday, July 21, 2004


An article in today's Chronicle of Higher Education (link for subscribers only) the House Committee on Education and the Workforce yesterday heard testimony on the excessive cost of college textbooks to students.  (Here's a press release from the committee concerning the hearings.) 
Textbooks are expensive because publishers inflate prices by adding "bells and whistles" that professors don't want and students don't use, an official of a student-advocacy group told the U.S. House of Representatives' principal subcommittee on higher education on Tuesday.

"The high cost of textbooks has perplexed and frustrated students, parents, and faculty for many years," said Merriah Fairchild, higher-education director of the California Student Public Interest Research Group. She also argued that publishers too often needlessly issue new editions of textbooks to prevent students from buying cheaper, used copies.

..."I believe that the costs of textbooks are too high and are one of the many factors jeopardizing our efforts to keep college affordable," said Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon, the California Republican who heads the panel, a subcommittee of the Committee on Education and the Workforce.
The committee Republicans have set out some principles for reform of higher education that include this plank:
Holding colleges accountable for cost increases without over-burdensome federal intrusion: The primary federal investment in higher education, ringing in at more than $70 billion in FY2003 alone, is direct financial assistance to students - and the cornerstone of increasing access for low-income students is the Pell Grant. However, despite the ever-increasing federal financial commitment and record spending for Pell Grants under President Bush, rapidly increasing college costs are depleting the purchasing power of the Pell Grant and putting college out of reach for many needy students. Republicans will seek to make information about cost increases more available to parents and students, and to hold colleges accountable for their cost increases without imposing an inappropriate federal role.
They are trying really hard not to call it price controls, but the implication of these statements are unavoidable. This is a really bad idea, made worse by the fact that creative market solutions are already appearing.  For instance, the Chronicle article refers to a program at Wisconsin-River Falls which rents textbooks for a term to students rather than making them buy.  The cost is $59, which is far less than the net cost of books after one sells them back to the bookstores.  (My sample of size = 1, from my son:  Net cost per term >$200.  Unless he's hiding money from me.)  According to the Chronicle article,

The program even makes a profit, according to Virgil Monroe, the university's manager of textbook services.
"The textbook-rental system also has the effect of bringing total college costs down to a more manageable level," he told the committee, "and this makes college more accessible, especially for poorer students."

Other schools, in the Wisconsin system and outside, are emulating River Falls.   This appears to have been spearheaded by students, who look for creative solutions from the market rather than crying for help from government.

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Posted by King : 10:55 AM