Forum explores how to cut textbook prices

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Education reporter
  • September 26, 2008 @ 12:00 PM

Shanell Hodges spent $500 on her college textbooks this semester.

Joy Black plucked down $623 for five textbooks, one of which she isn’t even using.

At the City Colleges of Chicago, mounting textbook prices are fast approaching the costs of tuition, making it a problem in need for immediate solutions.

A forum at Kennedy-King College earlier this week addressed some of those problems. Teachers, a publishing representative and others hashed out what’s driving up the cost of books and what can be done on to bring down prices.

“Its good to know that we have a whole lot of resources out there that I didn’t even think of,” says Alesha Darling, a 27-year-old nursing student at Kennedy-King.

Among the options: a new company called FlatWorld, which posts textbooks for free online. It makes its money by charging about $30 for a printed, black-and-white version of the book. However, existing textbooks aren’t available through the company, which commissions authors to write new books.

Eric Frank, the co-chairman of FlatWorld, told the forum that changing the textbook industry model and giving students more choices is key to lowering prices. According to data gathered by the U.S. Department of Education, college students are spending as much as $900 per year on books.

Many factors drive up the cost. Books are bundled with extra workbooks and DVDs promising added content and videos, but which professors seldom use in their curricula.

Professors often don’t know how much a book costs when they pick it for a class, experts say. With publishers merging and consolidating, there are fewer options for a given class, too. Bookstores add their own markup, and frequent new editions mean prices stay high, while making it difficult to buy and sell used books.

Students who attended the forum had plenty of stories of being left with $100 textbook bricks professors did not use and that could not be returned.

Black, 27, says she tried to return a book she bought for more than $100 but learned she did not need. The bookstore wouldn’t give her a refund, she says.

“I got a little bit more awareness about why things are so high,” the Harold Washington student says.

However, not everyone was convinced that the forum addressed any of the real issues.

Joshua Stackhouse, 26, said the real problem isn’t with prices alone, but with how decisions about which books to use get made.

“Where’s the transparency when everything in textbook selection is a handshake deal?” he asked outside the forum.

The format of the event frustrated him just as much as the topic.

The event at Kennedy-King was a panel discussion in front of a set complete with bookcases, floor lamps and wall panels, recorded for a WYCC-TV program on the topic it air in November.

Chancellor Wayne D. Watson posed with the panelists on stage for a photo op before the taping began. The production itself started 30 minutes late as the crew moved people in the audience to fill empty seats and touched up the panelists’ makeup.

Several students in the audience, screened in advance by producers of the show, asked questions of the panel at the end of the forum. One staff member asked this reporter to read a question, which was written by another person, in front of the cameras.

In a prepared statement he read at the start of the forum, Watson acknowledged that textbooks are too expensive.

“Right now, your textbooks cost almost as much as your tuition,” he said. “Now, something is out of kilter here.”

Tom Malek, a sales manager for the book publisher Pearson, sat on the panel. He says that having companies like FlatWorld join the fray would help cut prices.

“Competition is good,” he says. “The free market solves nearly every problem.”

Peter Sachs is a Chicago-based journalist. He covers higher education for the Daily News.