City Colleges takes on book publisher over prices

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Staff Writer
  • June 25, 2009 @ 2:00 PM

A group of professors at the City Colleges of Chicago is trying to lower the price of a popular electronic math textbook by haggling directly with the book's publisher.

Math professors at almost every City Colleges campus are using MyMathLab, a computer-based program that substitutes for a hard-copy textbook. The software gives students interactive step-by-step instructions on how to solve problems, as well as video and audio clips to help people with different learning styles, says Wright College math professor Keith McCoy.

But while there’s no paper book involved, students still must pay $70 per semester to access the program. That added up to $2 million in electronic textbook fees that students had to pay last year, McCoy says.

“We thought, Wow,” McCoy says. He adds, “Can we find better pricing of textbooks and course materials for our students?”

Many schools nationwide are working to make college textbooks more affordable, even as students complain that the books add hundreds of dollars to the cost of school each term, and are hard to resell.

The City Colleges’ size puts it in a unique position to negotiate on prices. 

Its 110,000 students makes City Colleges one of the largest community college districts in the nation.

McCoy is confident he can help lower prices because so many City Colleges professors use MyMathLab and similar electronic textbooks published by Pearson on reading, English composition, business and computer programming.

“What we want to do for the fall semester is to investigate all the various learning technologies that we use, come up with a pro-con list, and then go back to the publishers and try to make some deals,” McCoy says.

So far, negotiations with Pearson have yielded a slight price drop, but not much. McCoy wants to see MyMathLab drop to $40 per student, which would be 43 percent less than the current cost and 71 percent less than the $140 hard-copy version.

“If I can get it down to $40, that would be great,” McCoy says. “But I don’t know if that will happen.”

Pearson didn’t respond to calls for comment yesteday.

At the University of California-Berkeley, a committee of faculty and students is aiming to release a report with options and recommendations by the end of the summer.

Mechanical engineering professor Dennis Lieu, who co-chairs the committee at Berkeley, says negotiating with publishers is one of several options.

“There are several professors on campus that are doing precisely that, particularly with larger classes, and it does bring down textbook prices,” Lieu says.

Electronic versions of textbooks usually cost half as much as their paper counterparts, Lieu says, but the added features cost money to develop.

“Our conclusion is that we really can’t impose upon students a single solution that will cure their textbook cost woes,” he says.

Not all students want an electronic version, Lieu says, so it may make sense to provide rented or used textbooks as well.

“Really what it comes down to is being able to offer options,” he says.


Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18, or peter [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.