St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Their first test is affording the textbooks

New editions and textbook "bundles" that include CD-ROMs are thwarting thrifty college students' used-book strategy.

Published September 29, 2003

TAMPA - Renee Oursler usually spends $300 to $400 a semester on textbooks for her classes at the University of South Florida. But this fall she charged $600 to her parents' credit card.

"It was by far my worst semester," said Oursler, a 21-year-old premed major from Maryland. "Mom got the bill and called and asked what the $600 was for. I told her it was my books. She was like, "Jeez."'

While rising tuition is getting most of the attention from critics worried about the spiraling cost of higher education, textbook prices may be climbing even faster.

Many of the books required on Florida campuses cost more than $100 each. Some professors ask their students to buy textbook "bundles," which typically include CD-ROMs, access codes to Web sites, even a class syllabus. Their price tag can reach $300.

Not surprisingly, students are searching desperately for alternatives.

Some are going online or to independent bookstores to find cheaper copies. Some are sharing books, getting them from the library or even renting them. A few students are asking friends who have scholarships - especially Bright Futures, which includes an annual $600 stipend - to pay for their books.

Some are just doing without. About 20 percent of U.S. students don't buy all the textbooks required for their classes, according to the National Association of College Stores. That percentage is going up every year.

"It's just too expensive," said Brad Heins, textbook manager of Bill's Bookstore, a chain of independent stores near Florida State University in Tallahassee. "If you have to pay $120 for a beginning level biology book, that's a big chunk of a student's budget."

Publishers aren't making things any easier.

They are producing new editions with bewildering frequency, sometimes after just one year. That makes it difficult for students to buy used books, which are up to 25 percent cheaper. Some publishers even force students to buy a separate book if they want the answers to problems in their textbook.

Most students blame bookstores for the high prices. But retailers say they make very little from textbooks. They blame the publishers.

"A textbook is the best single resource a student has," said Judith Platt, spokeswoman for the Association of American Publishers, which represents the $8-billion textbook industry. "I think a lot of the yelping about the cost of textbooks is a lot of anger about the cost of higher education."

* * *

Students have always grumbled about the high cost of textbooks. But their pain has been particularly sharp in recent years.

In 1995, students at a four-year public school spent an average of $591 annually on books and supplies, according to the College Board, a nonprofit association of educational institutions. Five years later, that bill had swelled to $704.

Last year, students spent about $800 annually, with a typical textbook costing almost $74. Students studying math, science and business usually paid more, often much more.

Yana Gefon, a University of Florida graduate student in management, estimates she spent about $500 just for the fall semester. The total includes $135 for an accounting textbook.

"This is about the worst I've had," said Gefon, 23, of Jacksonville. "I don't have any used books. I didn't really have time to shop around. I just had to pay it."

Unlike mass-market books such as the Harry Potter series, which retail for less than $30 each, textbooks are written for a specialized audience. That makes it harder to recoup costs.

They are often longer and more extensively researched. They are printed on higher-quality paper and use complex graphics.

"I'm not downplaying these costs, but how much do students spend on sneakers?" Platt asked.

College bookstore managers say they sympathize with students, and try to keep an ample supply of used books on hand. But that has become increasingly difficult, they say, as publishers churn out new editions and hard-to-duplicate textbook bundles.

In 2000, students spent $5.2-billion on new books and $1.8-billion on used books, according to the National Association of College Stores. A year later, new books sales had increased to $6.1-billion. But used books sales dropped to $1.6-billion.

"I'm at the register watching the book go through; I'm in shock," said Mike Duffy, store director at the Florida State University bookstore. "I just shake my head."

Critics say the costs are pumped by all the new editions. Do math and English change that much from year to year?

UF agricultural economics professor Richard Beilock said he got a lesson eight years ago when he compared an old and new version of the same book. The only difference he noticed: a single graph. The old one used pizza on its horizontal axis and machinery on its vertical axis. The new one used pizza and robots.

Bookstore managers say the move toward textbook bundles also is exacerbating prices. A single bundle for a USF class in Swahili costs $295.

Bundles only come new and include study aids that usually can't be sold back at the end of the semester.

Students sometimes will find the same materials in two bundles for two separate classes, but still have to buy them both.

Maya George, a UF sophomore majoring in microbiology, tries to buy used books when she can but still gets stuck with bundles.

"I don't ever use those (Web) access codes," said George, 19, of Fort Lauderdale. "I have a friend who took this course last year and never used the CD."

* * *

Professors say they consider prices when they choose books for their classes. Beilock, the UF economics professor, has his students buy one textbook - he's flexible about which edition - and a $25 packet of what is essentially a set of his notes for the class.

Crystal Fincher, a 20-year-old UF junior from Brooksville, appreciates his cost-cutting strategy.

"If this is all you need, why should it cost $100 for the textbook?" Fincher said. "I think the professor remembers what it's like to be a student."

Professors who assign their own books sometimes hear complaints from students who think they are just out to make a buck. Not so, say the professors. They write the books because they didn't see anything on the market that fits their needs.

"If I were a student, I would wonder about it," said Drew Smith, a USF library and information science instructor. "But faculty members aren't doing it to get wealthy."

Smith, who co-wrote Library and Internet Research Skills, said he has made $1,400 from the book since it was published in 2000.

Scott Besley, chairman of the USF finance department, said he gives the college the few thousand dollars he earns each year from his Essentials of Managerial Finance. Others say they do the same.

At the University of Central Florida in Orlando, professors are required to donate their earnings if they use a book for their own class.

"Some people are surprised that I do that," Besley said. "But I'm not doing it for the money, so why not let the university profit from it instead of me?"

* * *

A 2002 study showed that nine of 10 college students buy their textbooks at campus stores. Experts say that is not the way to get the best prices.

Independent bookstores are more likely to carry used books. Online prices can be even cheaper.

The eBay company has more than 90-million textbooks for sale. Its average sale price is $25. At a campus bookstore, the average estimated price of a used textbook is $60.

But students say buying books online has its drawbacks. They can't see the books beforehand; they are difficult to return, and they often arrive late.

Still, there are other options.

Three years ago, USF began allowing financial aid recipients to spend up to $600 a semester at the bookstore before their Bright Futures scholarships or loan checks arrived. More than 7,500 students used the program this fall.

Other schools have similar programs.

"It's hard for students to come up with so much money at the beginning of the term," said Leonard Gude, USF's financial aid director.

Bright Futures has changed the landscape in other ways. Its $600 stipend can be more than enough to cover a student's book costs. So some are sharing the change with their friends.

"I see students saying, "Here, I'll buy that textbook for you. I'm on Bright Futures. It's free,"' said Stephen Moreau, assistant director at the UF bookstore. "Well, it's not free. That's supposed to be your money and your reward."

A few U.S. schools are renting textbooks. At Eastern Illinois University, students pay $7.95 per credit hour to rent basic texts.

Some students opt to do without.

Last year, the National Association of College Stores mounted a campaign on 18 campuses urging professors to insist their students buy books. It didn't make much of a difference.

"Some people go to class to make sure the book is really needed," said Shaana Henton, a 19-year-old USF sophomore majoring in psychology. "If they get a vibe they don't really need it, they don't buy it."

- Times staff writer Stephen Hegarty and researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.