Four Reasons Textbook Costs Will Drop

E-books, textbook rental services, and new laws could help students save money this fall.

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Textbook prices, which have nearly tripled in the past 20 years, may finally start to decline thanks to some new laws, technology, and upstart companies. Undergraduates who take advantage of the new alternatives could easily slash their textbook costs in half this coming academic year. That means the typical student could save more than $300. "We're making progress," says Nicole Allen, who heads the affordable textbook drive for the Student Public Interest Research Groups. "Things are changing for the better."

NEW LAWS: Congressional negotiators spent part of the summer of 2008 in closed-door meetings hammering out bipartisan agreement on a proposal designed to rein in skyrocketing book prices. The proposal, which congressional staffers expect will pass by fall, will require publishers to provide more pricing information to professors who, in the past, often assigned books without knowing how much they would cost students. In addition, the new law would require publishers to "unbundle" the increasingly common and expensive packages of textbooks, CD-ROMs, workbooks, and Web tools so students could buy whatever part they need and not have to spring for the parts they don't need.

The proposal has already been passed by the House and is similar to bills recently passed in Connecticut, Washington, Missouri, and several other states. While publishers say their new CD-ROMs and study guides help students get better grades, many students say they don't bother with the expensive accessories. Those who choose to buy just a textbook typically save 10 percent, the PIRGs calculated in 2005.

E-BOOKS: Students who don't mind studying a computer screen instead of a paper-and-ink book have several free or low-cost options. The growing number of free E-books archived on sites like Project Gutenberg (which has jumped to 28,000 from 5,000 free E-books since 2002) and four-year-old Google Books is especially helpful for students assigned older, out-of-copyright books such as literary classics.

In addition, many students are accessing free texts from E-book sharing sites such as scribd.com or bitme.org. But publishers charge that many of the sites are too much like the original Napster—allowing illegal sharing of copyrighted material. Such allegations led to the mid-July shutdown of textbooktorrents.com. Those who want legal access to up-to-date E-textbooks can check out coursesmart.com, the new E-book site created by a half dozen of the nation's biggest textbook publishers. By the start of school this fall, Coursesmart expects to have 5,000 of the nation's bestselling textbooks available for Internet subscription or downloading, typically for 30 to 50 percent less than the sticker price of the print version. A year's access to the online version of the single most popular introductory psychology textbook, David G. Myers's Psychology, sells for $55 on Coursesmart. It retails new on Amazon for $83. (Used print versions were available on Amazon for less than $60.) Coursesmart students can highlight and type notes on electronic copies of a book, copy small sections, and print out a few pages at a time, but they won't get access to CD-ROMs or other extras, and don't get to keep a book permanently because the files have digital expiration codes.

OPEN SOURCE: More than 1,000 professors have signed a new online petition promising to use and contribute to free, electronic, open-source textbooks. R. Preston McAfee, a California Institute of Technology economist, got so fed up with the $100-plus prices his students were paying for textbooks that he wrote and posted his own free textbook, Introduction to Economic Analysis. McAfee's E-book is one of the first to be offered by start-up Flat World Knowledge, which is promising free access to all of its E-textbooks. Students who prefer to study a paper-and-ink book can order paperback, black-and-white copies of Flat World Knowledge's textbooks for about $30 plus shipping. The company is starting with just four textbooks to be tested by 15 college classes around the country this fall.