Bill would study textbook prices

    In response to reports alleging that college textbooks used in the United States sell for as low as half the price in other countries, Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) introduced legislation to the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 20 that would require an investigation of textbook pricing practices. The bill would ask the U.S. General Accounting Office to determine why American college students are paying more for textbooks compared to students overseas.

    “”The price of college tuition is rising to unprecedented levels, making it difficult for families to send kids to college,”” said Wu’s press secretary Cameron Johnson. “”There were a number of press reports that came out saying that a lot of textbooks were available for half the amount overseas.””

    The New York Times reported on Oct. 21 that textbooks cost far less in other countries. These books are available for purchase online, and with the rise of college tuitions, many students are looking to order the cheaper textbooks abroad. According to Johnson, some of the books that students buy online cost less than books that are available at U.S. bookstores even with the additional international shipping fees.

    “”Wu found this very troubling, especially with the rise of tuition,”” Johnson said. “”The bill is basically going to see why this is going on, and what exactly is the disparity because there seems to be potential for price gouging.””

    Wu’s bill requires that the GAO investigate the college textbook industry and report within one year on how much the average student pays for textbooks as well as the cost of producing those books.

    The bill also asks that the GAO study why there is a discrepancy of textbook prices between the United States and other countries. In addition, the report would look into the publishing companies’ practices of printing new editions and investigating the price disparity between new and old textbooks.

    In response to Wu’s bill and to the increasing scrutiny of textbook pricing, publishers are defending their pricing practices. According to the American Association of Publishers, textbooks are sold outside the United States at prices that reflect local market conditions.

    “”We have not seen the legislation, but appreciate Congressman Wu’s concerns and welcome the opportunity to speak with him,”” AAP’s Director of Public Affairs Judith Platt said. “”Publishers are as committed as ever to delivering the highest quality materials to the higher education community.””

    According to Platt, textbook pricing is complex and involves bookstores, publishers, professors, students and authors.

    “”The development, production and distribution of textbooks and related educational materials require significant investments,”” Platt said. “”The cost of a major textbook can exceed $1 million before a single copy is sold. Unlike best-selling consumer books, textbooks are sold to niche markets in relatively small quantities.””

    According to Johnson, Wu’s bill may be attached to the Higher Education Act, which will be under consideration in 2004. The Higher Education Act covers financial aid laws in universities.

    “”Given that this issue with textbook prices is relative to the overall cost to education, we’re hoping to attach the bill to the Higher Education Act,”” Johnson said.

    While Wu’s bill is gathering support from students in Oregon, it is not yet certain if California representatives will sign the bill. According to Merriah Fairchild, the higher education advocate for the California Public Interest Research Group, discussion is underway.

    “”We’re still talking with people but no one else has committed to the bill,”” Fairchild said. “”The bill is still being drafted, so it’s harder to gather support for it in Congress.””

    According to Johnson, with the increasing concerns over rising costs of higher education, there have been generally positive reactions to Wu’s bill, especially from students.

    “”The best thing for students to do is to contact their own congressman, to tell them that this is an important thing and they’d like their congressman to sponsor the bill,”” Johnson said.

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