College Textbooks, Kindles and iPads

From the smallest community college to the most elite Ivy League university, students shell out hundreds of dollars every semester for textbooks.

Tacked onto their mounting student loan debt, few can afford it.

The good news is that electronic books (e-books) are providing some relief for students. The Kindle and the iPad bring textbook prices down considerably, and they can be used right in the classroom. The e-readers cost from $79 to $499, plus smaller fees for purchasing or renting each book.

Kindles and iPads are electronic tablets that you can hold in your hands and read from. They have a computer-like screen, but no keyboard. You can scroll through a textbook with the touch of a button.

The bad news is that e-books made up just 4 percent of textbook purchases in the fall of 2011.

Textbooks Add to Student Debt

From 1986 to 2004, textbook prices almost tripled, according to a 2005 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The research also found that the cost of textbooks and supplies as a percentage of tuition and fees reaches 26 percent at four-year public universities and almost 75 percent at community colleges.

So a good percentage of the $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt in America stems from textbooks. The average student loan debt in 2011 was $23,300, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

The amount spent on textbooks depends on which classes are taken, the requirements of each professor and the availability of the required texts. In the 2010-11 school year, students spent an average of $600 per semester on books and supplies.

Students can sell back used textbooks at the end of the semester, but they often receive only 15 to 25 percent of the new book price.  Bookstores then resell the books to the next group of students at a steep profit.

If students drop or add classes, textbook costs can increase — in part because the return policies at college bookstores can be stringent. Students who join a class late must get the books quickly and may be forced to buy them new instead of waiting for a used-book retailer to ship them.

Textbook Prices Burden Students

The structure of the textbook industry benefits schools, professors, publishers and wholesalers. Students, however, pay the price.

Each course has its own list of required books, and without them, academic performance may suffer. Buying an older edition may be cheaper, but can bring added difficulty. Without the proper textbooks, students may receive lower grades on papers, tests, projects and finals.

So students are left with no choice but to pay more for books — and often more than they can afford.

Meanwhile, everyone else benefits.

Schools Benefit

Colleges own and operate the majority of college bookstores, profiting from selling, renting and buying back books. But it’s definitely not a huge profit. According to the National Association of College Stores, a 2008 study showed that college stores make an average of 4.5 cents per dollar on each new textbook they sell.  A good portion of their profit comes from selling college paraphernalia.

Professors Benefit

Professors choose the textbooks.

Professors may assign books that they have written and earn $5-10 in royalties from each book sold.

Professors often receive free copies of textbooks from publishers.

Professors are often not aware of the prices of textbooks.

Professors can structure assignments and tests around information only available in newer editions.

It should be noted that some universities prohibit professors from assigning their own books, while others require that profits from a professor’s own textbook go toward school programs.

Publishers and Wholesalers Benefit

Most of the textbook market is not regulated by the government.

Four firms, Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, McGraw-Hill and Pearson, control 90% of the textbook market.

Four wholesalers distribute most textbooks: Follet, Barnes and Noble, Nebraska, and College Bookstores of America. These wholesalers also buy back used books.

Solutions to Textbook Prices

The Internet — and its treasure trove of used-book websites and book-rental websites — has accounted for the greatest savings for students. Students can comparison shop on these bookseller sites: Half.com, ebay, Amazon, Barnesandnoble, bestbookbuys, Project Gutenburg, and these rental sites: Chegg, BookRenter and CollegeBookRenter.

The government has also tried to step in to protect students. Open textbooks and online libraries are other possible solutions to the problem of overpriced textbooks. And e-readers like the Kindle and iPad are the newest solution available to students.

Saving on textbooks could help students cut down on credit card debt. In 2008, college seniors owed more than $4,100 on their credit cards.

Government Solution to Textbook Prices

The Federal Higher Education Opportunity Act (HOA) was passed in 2008 and added to in 2010.  This act helps prevent publishers and schools from taking advantage of students with high textbook prices.

Textbook information, such as title, author and whether it is required or recommended, and supplemental information must be made available when students register for a class.  This way, students can plan ahead when choosing classes and preparing budgets. In the past, professors could choose to issue a book list at a later date.

Another helpful requirement of the HOA is that publishers must sell course materials individually, without supplemental materials like discs or other electronic add-ons. Before, expensive bundles had to be purchased even if professors used just one book from the bundle.

Open Textbooks Offer Solution to Pricing Problem

Open textbooks are one solution to the financial stress of overpriced textbooks, but they are only available if the authors allow their work to be viewed on the Internet for free.

When college books have open copyright licenses, it allows material to be accessed, shared and adapted.  The text is free to be viewed online and can be printed for 20 percent of what a textbook would typically cost.  The text is available to be legally shared, copied, distributed to students, and even modified by professors.

Authors have little to gain from open textbooks, because although their work can be seen and used in the academic community, their profit is being sacrificed.

Cheaper Online Libraries Help Solve Textbook Pricing Problem

Online libraries are another resource for students and faculty. In 2012, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began to help fund Rice University’s initiative to provide online textbooks for five of the most-attended college courses. There are already books for 42 community college courses. They plan to double the number of courses in 2012.

From 2012-2017, students could save an estimated $90 million under the program.  The project centers around the intention of keeping textbook prices at $30 or less.

Open textbooks and online libraries will take time to build up enough textbooks and users before they can prove to be truly effective.

E-Readers Are Newest Textbook Solution

Purchasing and renting books for e-readers, like the Kindle and iPad, from Amazon and Apple’s libraries is the newest solution available to students.

The Apple iPad starts at $499. The first model is 0.5 inches thick and weighs 1.5 pounds. iPad 2 is thinner and weighs 1.3 pounds. Both models allow the user to surf the web, watch videos, look at photos, listen to music — and read textbooks. Their batteries last for 10 days.

There are seven types of Kindles that range in price from $79-$199. They weight from 5.98 ounces to 18.9 ounces. The battery life runs from 3 weeks to 2 months.

Apple has begun working with Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, McGraw-Hill and Pearson, which control most of the textbook market, to put more textbooks into their digital bookstore.

The majority of all books in Apple’s library cost $14.99 or less. Books can be rented for Amazon’s Kindle at 20 percent of the original price. Textbooks can cost $100 or more, but that’s substantially less than the most print texts. iPad technology allows users to also read books that were purchased for the Kindle.

Kindle allows many of its books to be loaned to another Kindle for up to 14 days. iPad books can be viewed on different iPads under the same account, but they cannot be shared with other accounts. iPad libraries are similar to iTunes libraries.

E-books have many advantages:

  • Many cost substantially less than print texts.
  • Books can be downloaded in a minute or less.
  • Kindles and iPads are light and easy to carry around.
  • Hundreds or thousands of books can be stored on one device.
  • Special screens allow students to read in the sunlight and in the dark.

There are some disadvantages, as well:

  • Every textbook is not available in electronic form.
  • Cannot be sold back.
  • Battery power may run out.
  • Cannot physically highlight text.
  • E-texts cannot be shared the way print books are.
  • Purchased texts can be deleted by Apple or Amazon if publishers choose to change agreements.

While the use of e-readers is growing, polls show the vast majority of students prefer print textbooks and would pay to print out a textbook even if they could read it online for free.

As technology has developed, people have adapted to new devices like laptops and touchscreens that may have felt strange in the beginning. Students have grown more accustomed to Internet research and may follow suit by choosing e-readers, relieving them of some of the high cost of textbook purchases.

Cecillia Barr

Cecillia Barr is a graduate of the University of Central Florida. She blogs about her extensive knowledge on student loans in order to help others reduce their debt and live financially independent lives.

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