Core textbooks to be standardized, cheaper

Carrie Blazina

Sarah Morris said the high cost of textbooks has changed her college experience dramatically.

“The more expensive the books are, the more money I have to take out in loans, and I am at my limit currently,” said Morris, a sophomore anthropology and archeology major. “I actually had to move out of the dorm and move into an apartment just so I can afford going to Kent State … I was actually basically forced to move out [because of high costs].”

The textbook affordability task force, chaired by assistant finance professor David Dumpe, has some solutions to Morris’s problem.

The group has suggested the Kent Core courses have a standard book across all sections, and said faculty should come up with a standard method of textbook selection. The group is expecting these recommendations to be in place by March 26, the start of Fall 2012 course registration.

Morris said sometimes buying the right edition of the book is difficult.

“A lot of the time [students] might have experiences where they would have to buy an expensive book and then a week later the new edition comes out,” Morris said. “You can’t sell your book back for even half the price, and if you don’t need it ever again there’s really no need for you to have it.”

Dumpe said standardizing Core courses’ books will help the university comply with a federal law requiring the school to report a course’s textbook information as close to registration time as possible. It will also eliminate the problem of a student not knowing the textbook information because the section does not have a professor.

“On March 26, they may have no idea who’s going to teach a section of a particular course in the fall,” Dumpe said, “but if the textbook is standardized, at least they can tell students what the textbook will be and that gives students plenty of time to search around for the best price.”

The task force will focus on core courses for now because they are easier to standardize, but Dumpe said they hope to branch out to include non-Core courses that have enrollments of 200 or more students. He said this will allow faculty that teach upper-division courses to know exactly what students have already learned in their basic courses.

Another member of the task force, associate psychology professor Joel Hughes, who is currently on Faculty Professional Improvement leave, said in an email that he sees some negative impacts too.

“I always envisioned a balance between standardization and the departments’ strategy for text selection,” he said. “For example, an instructor who uses free ‘open-source’ material should not be required to use a text that increases cost. Standardization could mean that generally there is a default choice for professors to use, but that specific situations and creative solutions are respected.”

Textbook Fast Facts

  • The average price of a new Kent Core textbook is $120.
  • Students spend between $7 million and $7.5 million on textbooks per year.
  • If the university can bargain with companies to save just $50 on the price of each textbook, they can save students $3.5 million on Core textbooks, just under half the current total spent on books, and $12.8 million on other courses’ books (for eight courses a year per student).
  • 56 percent of textbooks sold are new.
  • 25 percent are used.
  • 18 percent are rentals.
  • 1 percent are digital.
  • Students spend nearly $5 million per year on new Core textbooks.

    Source: Textbook affordability task force statistics

Dumpe said the task force will encourage faculty of multi-section courses to work together to select a textbook, which he said is something they already do on an individual basis.

“We’re asking faculty to do what they normally do,” he said. “We’re just asking them to do it together rather than separately.”

According to materials presented to the task force, textbook selection between sections varies greatly.

In four sections of History of Civilization, for example, students pay $50 to $75 for the book in one section, $126 to $150 in two other sections and more than $200 in the fourth.

While these changes may not seem to impact students who buy or rent their books online rather than from the bookstore, Hughes said that is not the case.

“Publishers want business and will give volume discounts,” he said. “The better the discount, the more likely people will find out about it. In my department, some faculty email the students weeks before the semester starts to point out the lower-cost options for getting the textbook.”

Another factor that may appeal to publishers is the task force’s suggestion to someday implement a course-fee model. This would mean the students enrolling in a course would pay a flat fee and automatically receive the book for the course.

Hughes said there are some potential problems with the course-fee model, though.

“In my view students do not want a course fee where everyone enrolled is charged money and issued a book,” Hughes said. “This reduces freedom of choice, and some students beg, borrow, or share books, which keeps costs very low … some courses can be passed without ever peeling the wrapper off the book, and those students do not want a course fee.”

Dumpe said whether students automatically buy the book or just are much more likely to buy it because of the reduced price, this means publishers can lower costs further. More students buying a book, Dumpe said, may also mean increased grades and outcomes from a course.

“We have to believe students would do better in a course if they had the textbook to do the required readings,” he said.

Another change the task force is suggesting is the creation of an online textbook forum for students to get the latest textbook information from the university and from fellow students. Dumpe said the forum would work as an “intracampus Craigslist for books,” but for now the forum is only a suggestion and has not been implemented yet.

Dumpe said the initiative may cost the school money, but the amount it spends should be “inconsequential compared to the millions that students could save.”

“The university may not get money from reducing costs, but it benefits [the school] tremendously if you stay in school, graduate and get a job,” Hughes said.

Dumpe said the group is hoping to make the recommendations an ongoing initiative, even carrying through to when Todd Diacon takes over for Provost Robert Frank in April.

“This is an official provost’s office initiative, and we don’t want it to lose steam during the transition,” Dumpe said. “ … We don’t expect that the savings that you see by fall of 2012 will be the only savings that you’ll ever see.”

Contact Carrie Blazina at [email protected].