Textbook bill not strong enough

    Here’s a fun game, upperclassmen: Take your freshman calculus book “Calculus: Early Transcendentals” into the UCSD Bookstore. Place it side by side with the current edition, and compare words and sentences on any given page. You might notice a significant similarity. In fact, the only part of the textbook that seems significantly different is the problems section, where existing problems are renumbered.

    The fact is, students in science and engineering classes are being played like cheap fiddles when it comes to buying textbooks. In subjects that have not changed since the time of Isaac Newton, the appearance of a new textbook edition covering these subjects every one to four years has become a remarkably commonplace occurrence.

    Liberally encouraged by local pledge-mongers at the California Public Interest Research Group and their report “Ripoff 101: How the Current Practices of the Textbook Industry Drive Up the Cost of College Textbooks,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed a bill to stem the tide of rising textbook costs. This landmark bill asks professors to consider price in their choice of course materials and encourages the University of California administration to encourage their faculty to look at these textbook costs.

    Yet with all of this asking and encouraging going on, no changes are actually mandated by the bill. A second bill, which calls for stronger action by establishing a UC-sponsored rental service, was shot down by the governor’s office because the bill doesn’t prevent universities from charging all students for the service, including students who don’t use the program.

    While it is encouraging that the most important office in the state is even willing to pay lip service to the issue of rising textbook costs while more important problems (such as the massive budget crisis) face the state, the bill still is nothing more than that. Currently, many professors at the University of California already consider price when choosing textbooks, especially for entry-level courses such as calculus, where most students have no need to keep the textbook for reference after the class is completed.

    Asking professors to choose cheaper textbooks does not address the issue that these textbooks are replaced with new editions, often yearly. And encouraging administrators to talk to their faculty does not resolve the issue that these textbooks are often only available as “bundled” editions, saddled with additional supplements that professors simply do not use.

    Not even the proposed second bill, with its textbook rental program, would so much as deal with these problems. The problem does not lie with UC faculty and staff. Many professors include problem numbers for older and newer editions in their courses, and UCSD already has a successful book-lending service run by the Academic Success Program.

    No, the problem lies entirely with textbook publishers. For it is their insatiable quest for maximum profit that causes them to bundle textbooks, release new editions with renumbered problems whenever the market is saturated with used textbooks and charge American students twice as much as the rest of the world by taking away our choice to purchase “international editions” (i.e. paperbacks) of textbooks.

    So why has CALPIRG not gone after the publishers directly with their proposed legislation? Well, sadly, the state of California has absolutely no power to regulate the international corporations that publish these textbooks. Even if the textbook publishing companies were California businesses and could be regulated, one needs only to look at California’s lack of success with the regulation of its electricity industry to realize that our government is entirely unable to influence the cause of rising textbook prices.

    Then why bother with this bill in the first place, if it completely misses the cause of the textbook cost problem while dealing with an entity that has no power in the first place? The answer is publicity.

    Public awareness of textbook publishing practices is the only weapon CALPIRG has in this battle. But like the “soft” textbook price legislation that bears the signature of Schwarzenegger, this tactic does not often yield action.

    After publishing “Ripoff 101,” UCLA’s branch of CALPIRG lobbied Thomson Learning, and demanded fairer prices on the “Calculus: Early Transcendentals” textbook they publish. Thomson Learning made a statement that they would discount “some books” for UCLA, but gave no details. Months later, CALPIRG lobbied again, holding Thomson Learning accountable for their earlier statements. Even armed with a letter signed by 500 faculty members, Thomson has yet to issue another statement.

    Perhaps CALPIRG has been pursuing the wrong prize in its attempt to help financially strapped students. Textbook publishing companies have large legal staffs available to combat attacks just like this one. Even if CALPIRG found complete success with the textbook industry, the average student would only be able to save around $300 to $400 per year, assuming that they currently pay around $900 per year for books (the average UCSD cost of textbooks according to the CALPIRG report).

    On the other hand, student fees at the University of California rose by an average of $700 this year, not including the rising costs of university housing or the added cost of the mandatory meal plan. And, unlike a corporation, whose allegiance lies only with its pocketbook, the University of California is theoretically accountable to its students, and lobbying efforts against it have been marginally effective in the past. While textbook publishers such as Thomson Learning have either ignored CALPIRG’s cries entirely or flat-out lied to the loudest group at UCLA, the recent success with Schwarzenegger shows that the governor’s office is at least somewhat sympathetic to public interest groups.

    So what seems like a better use of CALPIRG’s time and resources? A nasty battle with unaccountable entities over $300 to $500 per student, or a slightly less nasty battle with a publicly accountable entity for upwards of $700 per student, depending on which student fees are contested?

    Regardless, CALPIRG’s willingness to single-handedly take on the textbook publishing industry for their pricing practices is undoubtedly noble, and if they keep the pressure on, there is a decent chance that eventually some results will be seen.

    Until then, students still have options when dealing with rising textbook prices. Old editions can miraculously transform into new editions with $5 worth of photocopies. Friends overseas are usually willing to pick up international editions for a small bribe. And, if all else fails, textbook delivery trucks are notoriously top heavy, making them easy to hijack.

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