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Bruce Maiman: Let’s put cash cow from college textbooks out to pasture

I haven’t bought a college textbook in decades, but when I wandered into the campus bookstore at Sacramento State the other day, I got sticker shock.

“Anatomy and Physiology,” $274. “Corporate Finance,” $309. “Introduction to the History of Mathematics,” $328.

The prices are bad enough, but in today’s digital age, why are we still using textbooks? Because it’s a cash cow, I suspect.

Between 2002 and 2013, college textbook prices rose 82 percent – nearly three times the rate of inflation – a recent federal study found. California State University officials tell the Los Angeles Times that on average, students spend more than $1,000 annually on textbooks. A national survey earlier this year of more than 2,000 college students by the Public Interest Research Group found that students typically spend up to $1,200 each year on textbooks. Nearly two-thirds of them have opted out of buying a college textbook due to high prices, “knowingly accepting the risk of a lower grade,” the survey said.

The Association of American Publishers refutes that, arguing that many surveys track only print textbook purchases. The trade group claims the average student spent $520 for all course materials last year, including print, electronic books, used books and rentals.

“The publishing industry is bending over backwards to provide students with a variety of choices,” Dave Anderson, the association’s executive director for higher education, told me. “The bigger issue,” added Anderson’s colleague Andi Sporkin, “is why students aren’t aware of all these options.”

They are, though. Students nationwide, including dozens I spoke with at California State University, Sacramento, pursue discounts through used books, book rentals, campus book swaps and various websites students have launched.

That shouldn’t even be necessary. We should be digitizing all this material and making it available online for a nominal licensing fee, so students can get textbooks for far less cost.

Publishers, incidentally, are in no position to boast about transparency. For years they opposed state Sen. Ellen Corbett’s bill requiring publishers to provide information to faculty and institutions that would help them decide which books to use – including a textbook’s wholesale and retail cost, how long it would stay current and a breakdown of differences between current and past editions.

“Publishers argued that if teachers had all that information they’d start making bad choices for our students based on the cost of the material rather than its quality,” the San Leandro Democrat told me.

That runs counter to Sporkin’s claim that “faculty is deciding what materials are assigned,” while “the student is just the buyer or renter.”

Good gravy, we can’t have faculty deciding what materials to teach! Let’s leave that to book publishers!

They sure try. Corbett, having taught community college in her district, routinely fought to get publishing information but instead got hard-sell solicitations, cards and cold-call visits from booksellers, “It was like how Big Pharma reps come into the doctor’s office bringing little tchotchkes to close the deal on some drug,” she said.

After nearly a decadelong battle, Corbett’s bill, SB 1539, finally became law in 2012.

The lunacy of the printed page manifested itself in last week’s decision by the Fremont school board to send a controversial sex education textbook back to the publisher for revisions after some parents complained about “objectionable” passages, including mentions of sex toys and bondage.

The revised text won’t be in ninth-grade classrooms until January. The district will rely on last year’s textbook, which other parents say is inadequate and even inaccurate.

School district spokesman Brian Kilgore told me the district paid about $200,000 for the original book order. If the material had been online instead of in a 480-page hardback, the revisions could have been made overnight with a few clicks of a mouse. For free.

In fairness, school districts don’t have the flexibility of universities with textbook policies and access, but some K-12 officials see the value of digitization. Kilgore’s former district, Apache Junction Unified in Arizona, is digitizing its curriculum one grade at a time.

University systems are now testing free “open-source” textbooks – online material written by faculty and peer-reviewed, just like published textbooks, but free to download, customizable for specific course needs and easy to update or correct. The California State University system, the Washington state college system and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are among those that have built libraries of free online course materials in recent years. The University of Maryland says it has saved students $130,000 this year with its open-source pilot program.

That’s $130,000 not going into publishers’ pockets. While they’re making inroads on digitizing, I’m hard pressed to side with an industry that appears to be still resisting the inevitable digitization and open-sourcing efforts that are sure to cost them big bucks.

A college education comes with enough financial burdens; the cost of textbooks shouldn’t be one of them.