Beating the high cost of textbooks

Beating the high cost of textbooks

When Oakwood resident Jessie Lappin started a nursing program at Danville Area Community College last year, she was prepared to shell out about $1,500 in tuition for her first semester.

She can't say the same about her books, which totaled about $1,200.

"I had some financial aid, but it didn't cover everything," said Lappin, who had to borrow money from family to pay for her books.

While she and other college students are well aware that course materials are part of the cost of a college education, Lappin believes some textbook prices have gotten out of hand.

"I paid over $200 for a book that we used for two weeks, and then we were done with it. I wanted to sell it back to the bookstore, but they wouldn't take it because (the publisher) came out with a new edition the next semester," recalled Lappin.

That also has been a problem when she has tried to buy used textbooks at a reduced rate, Lappin said.

"Every time I go to buy a book, it seems like (the edition) is always changing," she said, adding there's no real discernible difference between editions as far as she can tell.

"You end up having to pay full price for a book that you only use one semester and never pick up again," added fellow nursing student Katie Murdoch of Fairmount.

This summer, Lappin and Murdoch are taking Introduction to Microbiology at DACC. It comes with a textbook, if students want to pay the price.

However, instructor Wendy Brown said the book isn't mandatory, and students can get through the course using her lecture note packet, available at the bookstore for $12, and a lab manual she created, available for about $4.

Brown is one of a growing number of instructors at DACC and Parkland College in Champaign, who, like their students, are frustrated with the high cost of traditional hardcover, full-color textbooks. For that reason and others, they are turning to less expensive alternatives, such as online books and materials, custom books, trade books and book rentals — and even creating their own materials — when possible to help reduce the overall cost of college for students.

"When you talk about Achieving the Dream, one of the barriers of getting a college education is the cost, and textbooks are a part of that cost," said Rich Pate, the social sciences lead professor at DACC.

Pate was referring to Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count, a national initiative aimed at helping community college students — particularly minority and low-income students and others who face the most significant barriers to success — meet their education goals. DACC has been part of the reform effort, which aims to increase college completion rates, since 2009.

According to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, released this June, college textbook prices increased at a rate three times the rate of inflation over the last decade, with textbooks for introductory subjects frequently costing more than $200 apiece.

Pate cited a 2012 survey of college students in Florida by the Florida Distance Learning Consortium that was funded by a U.S. Department of Education grant. It was authorized by the Florida Legislature to determine how much students paid for textbooks in the spring 2012 semester and how the cost affected them financially and academically.

Of the 22,129 participants — who represented all 11 state universities and 22 of Florida's 28 colleges, community colleges and state colleges — 31 percent of the Florida students reported not registering for a class, 35 percent took fewer courses, 14 percent dropped a course and 11 percent withdrew due to the cost of textbooks.

Also, 63 percent reported not having purchased the required book and nearly one-fourth reported doing without frequently.

While some students may be able to borrow a textbook from a teacher or classmate or make do with a copy from the library, DACC's Brown said, it's never a good idea to go without, even for a short time.

"One of the areas of learning is done by reading the information," she said, adding that students who try to do without risk falling behind. "If they don't have it, they're going to be missing out on a large component of the material.

"We don't have a lot of rich students," Brown continued, adding that some scholarships and financial aid can help cover the cost. "But not everyone has financial aid, and some people only have a limited amount. If you can save $100 or more on a book, that's more money in their pocket that can go toward something else in education."

Like many instructors at DACC and Parkland, Brown began making her lecture notes and PowerPoint presentations available to students as study guides. She also used a project in her Intro to Microbiology class, in which students created a lab exercise for their peers, as a template; revised and built on it; and turned it into a lab manual. It has replaced one from a large publishing company that cost between $45 and $50.

"Students write in their lab book and put answers in it, so it's never something they can sell back," Brown said.

Her colleagues in DACC's math department — Amber Anderson, Don York and Eric Rayburn — are putting the finishing touches on a new textbook for intermediate algebra, taken by about 200 students each semester. While the cost of the book — which will be printed by DACC's graphics division and available this fall — was still unknown in late June, Anderson said it should cost only a fraction of the $170 textbook they were using.

"Even used, that book was over $100," Anderson said, adding instructors only covered about two-thirds of the material. "Students were paying for the material we didn't go over as well. Now, they'll be using all of the material and basically be paying for the cost of printing — nine or 11 cents for a sheet of paper, and 20 cents for the cover, which will be in color. It should be well under $50."

Anderson said creating the textbook was borne out of her and York's dissatisfaction with the one they had been using.

"We feel we cut out a lot of the unnecessary detail and the other book went through things in a sequence that didn't make sense," said Anderson, who worked on an outline and divided up writing the chapters with York. Rayburn created a lot of the homework problems, and other instructors gave input as well.

"I'm hopeful that the way we organized the content will make more sense to students, and they'll have a better understanding of the material. And it will be much less expensive," Anderson said.

At Parkland, Ruthann Whobrey, an associate professor in the Computer Science and Information Technology Department, started writing course materials for two classes about five years ago partly because of her concern with the cost.

"But also because in the field of technology, it's hard for publishers to keep up with the materials," she said. "It was a constant change of textbooks, so the bookstore didn't have a lot of used books available for students. And finding a current, inexpensive textbook was quite a challenge.

"I decided to reduce the amount of dependence on a textbook by writing my own materials," continued Whobrey, who writes material as web pages, which students can access online. "It's free."

Whobrey does provide a book that matches her course content for students who prefer to have a hard copy. She researches about 20 titles a year to "find the most well-written, least expensive book out there."

Last fall, Kendra McClure, an associate profession of mass communication at Parkland, traded in a traditional textbook for her Introduction to Advertising course, which cost more than $200, for free online "open-source" material through Flat World Knowledge. She said the free textbook she chose includes advertising history and theory as well as a practical, hands-on aspect that the other book was lacking.

"It's a company that's also concerned about the high cost of textbooks, so they developed a model that addresses the issue," McClure said of the company that offers college-level open textbooks and supplemental material.

The online material is no longer free, but McClure said it will only cost students $19.95. She said a drawback is the company doesn't deal directly with bookstores.

"If students qualify for financial aid, they have to pay for it upfront. Then they have to wait for their reimbursement and see if they have any money left over. That could be a challenge to some people."

Brown also plans to offer an online textbook for her life science class at DACC this fall.

"It's a peer-reviewed textbook," she said, meaning it's been vetted by experts in the biology and science field. She added she thinks online textbooks and materials will be more common in the future.

"This generation of students all use smartphones and electronic tablets and e-readers. It's second nature to them to pick up their phone or tablet and read their book.

"It's very interactive," continued Brown, who demonstrated how she can highlight text, make notes and scribble equations in her online text. "The other draw is it's free. It's not costing students anything."

Instructors also are working with established and non-established publishers alike to create custom books. Instead of buying an entire book that may include material that goes unused, instructors can select the chapters that are relevant to their course and even have it bound with other material offered by the company.

"It's a more efficient way of putting together the material," Brown said. "And instead of paying $180 for a new book, students only have to pay $70 new. For a used book, it's even cheaper."

Kris Young, Parkland's vice president of academic services, said the college is also offering book rentals for some courses, something that Eastern Illinois University offers.

"We have 68 titles that we offer as an option," Young said, adding that's a way for students to save money upfront. However, they risk having their credit card charged for the full price if they fail to return the book when the course ends.

Andi Sporkin, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Publishers in Washington, said established publishing companies have been working with instructors, students and even competitors to bring down costs.

She said they're printing more custom books, offering book rental programs and producing more digital materials at a "significantly" reduced cost.

"You hear people say all the time that the price of textbooks are skyrocketing. But actually, they've been down or flat for the last four years," she said, adding that's as far back as she has tracked. "The day of that 10-pound, $200, one-size-fits-all textbook, which may or may not have helped you complete the course, has been gone for about a decade."

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