20% Of CUNY Costs Go For Textbooks

Published on August 16, 2009, 1:22 pm
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Incoming Fall Freshman can pay an average $536 for books in 1st semester alone.

With CUNY tuition rising 15% in 2009, and with average student debt having doubled since 1993, Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Queens), Chairman of the Council Committee on Oversight and Investigations, released the findings of a study which found that CUNY students in fall 2009 could pay nearly 20% of total school costs on books alone. The study found the cost of textbooks for a first semester freshman courseload costs, on average, $536. Gioia, in a letter to CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, called for CUNY to establish a book rental program, along with making more textbooks available at CUNY libraries. Just this Thursday, Cengage Learning, which is one of the nation’s biggest textbook publishers, announced it would begin renting books to students, and the Follett Higher Education Group announced about a dozen schools would begin book rental programs. A report by the federal government in 2004 found that the price of textbooks has tripled since 1986 – twice as much as the rate of inflation.

“CUNY needs to be affordable and accessible for everyone,” said Councilman Gioia. “Students who work hard to go to CUNY schools should not have think twice about which books they need to purchase for classes. Every student should have equal access to necessary class materials so they can excel. Books are a necessity for college, not a luxury. A book rental program will go a long way towards helping students focus on studying, and not worrying about which books they can afford.”

Gioia’s survey of 10 CUNY schools found that the cost of textbooks for an incoming freshman for the fall semester cost, on average, $536, given a typical full-time courseload of five classes. With in-state tuition now $4,980, this means that over the course of a year, CUNY students could be paying nearly 20% of their total college costs solely on textbooks. In addition, because books can become outdated over the course of a single school year, students may find themselves unable to return the textbooks to bookstores because the books cannot be resold. Investigators examined the prices for required textbooks in entry-level classes from a distribution of five of the most common university subjects—history, biology, math, philosophy and English.

Gioia’s investigation found that Queens College had the least expensive semester’s worth of books at $400.50, while a semester at Queensborough Community College set students back the most, with $735 worth of books. Books for biology classes were the most expensive, averaging more than $142, while philosophy classes required, on average, less than $78 worth of books.

In addition, there were wide disparities in textbook prices for similar classes across CUNY schools. Students at Brooklyn College in intro-level Biology 3 have to pay more than $180 for their package of books, while students in Biology 101 at John Jay College are required to purchase a single $57 book.

In order to make textbooks more accessible to CUNY students, and to give them more options, Gioia is asking that CUNY create a textbook rental program, along with making more textbooks available at CUNY libraries.  Under textbook rental plans, colleges set aside books for students to rent at reduced costs, and when the semester is over, they simply return the book—much like at a library. Some school bookstores with rental programs charge students per credit, others charge based on the book’s retail price, and others determine the price based on each course. According to the National Association of College Stores (NACS), textbook rental programs typically allow students to rent the books at one-third the retail cost. Congress set aside $10 million in federal grant monies for textbook rental programs in the Higher Education Opportunity Act that passed last year. According to the NACS, about 20 schools have applied for the grant. A study by the Illinois Board of Higher Education also found that book rental programs could be a deciding factor in whether or not students with financial difficulties choose to attend.

Especially in tough economic times, textbook rental programs have begun to expand. Just this week, Cengage Learning, one of the nation’s largest textbook publishers, announced they would begin renting books to students. The Barnes and Noble bookstore chain also announced it would begin a pilot rental program in three of its campus bookstores. Schools implementing rental programs include the University of Wisconsin; SUNY Buffalo and Cal State Sacramento announced pilot rental programs this week.

Textbook prices have increased over the years for a variety of reasons. Textbooks now often include supplemental material like computer software, which contributes greatly to prices. Also, due to the rapid advancement in many fields of study, books are revised more often, and publishers try to place the burden of increased development and production costs directly on students. Finally, textbooks are more expensive than most other mass-produced books simply because there is less demand for such books.

In 2008, Congress passed legislation mandating that college textbook publishers provide more information about textbook pricing, in addition to ceasing the practice of bundling texts with CDs and workbooks that are for single use. However, the legislation does not take effect until 2010, leaving fall 2009 textbooks outside the oversight of the legislation. It is estimated that the textbook industry made $3.6 billion in 2008.

Councilman Gioia will held a rally with CUNY students in front of Hunter College bookstore at 2:00 p.m. today.

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