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College students and some of their professors are pushing back against ever-escalating textbook prices that have jumped 82% in the past decade.
Growing numbers of faculty are publishing or adopting free or lower-cost course materials online.
Students also are getting savvier: 34% this spring reported downloading course content from an unauthorized website, up from 20% in 2010, says a survey released last month by the Book Industry Study Group, a trade association whose members include publishers, retailers, librarians, and other professionals engaged in print and electronic media. Also, 31% said they photocopied or scanned chapters from other students' books, up from 21% in 2010. The study (from spring 2013) is based on ongoing surveys involving about 6,000 book buyers a month.
The price for new textbooks has been rising about 6% a year, says a report released this summer by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. It is based on five U.S. higher education textbook publishers that represent more than 85% of college textbook sales. The 82% increase in textbook prices since 2002 compares with a 28% rise in the overall Consumer Price Index during the same period.
Publishers have been able to drive up textbook prices because students "have to buy whatever textbook they've been assigned," says Nicole Allen, a program director for the Scholarly Publishing Academic Resources Coalition, an alliance of academic libraries.
Allen, a longtime advocate for students, sees signs of "a turning point," in part because more teachers are seeking cheaper alternatives. .
About one in four first-year students and one in three seniors frequently did not purchase required academic materials because of cost, says a 2012 study by the non-profit National Survey of Student Engagement.
Students also have access to a wider array of options, including used books and digital textbooks, which can save as much as 40% , according to the non-profit National Association of College Stores. Its survey last October of more than 11,000 students on 19 campuses found that students spent $662 a year in 2012 on required course materials, up from $655 in 2011 but down from $702 in 2007.
"One of the reasons why you're starting to see the average spending decrease by students (is that) the digital market is starting to take more of a hold," says James McCusker, a vice president for Cengage, a Connecticut-based college textbook publisher.
Congress in 2008 passed a law requiring publishers to provide more information to faculty about the costs of materials they require students to buy and requiring colleges to disclose prices to students in a timely manner so they can plan. The Government Accountability Office study found that the new requirements had a "limited effect" on faculty decisions, but that students can now "better manage" costs by comparison shopping and making strategic choices.
Amber Osterholt, a graduate student studying anthropology at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, is not convinced. Over the course of her academic career, she has amassed 11 boxes of college textbooks. Some textbooks cost her "half a month's rent," and attempts to recoup some of the cost - which she estimates at about $6,000-
"The second there's a new edition, you can no longer sell back unneeded books," Osterholt says. "Oh, and they're ridiculously heavy."
David Schick and Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY