With pen and paper in hand, three students went to a bookstore on the Harvard University campus in the fall of 2007. They were there not to buy books, but to take down the ISBNs of textbooks being sold in the store. When they were asked to leave, they refused, and police were called to diffuse the situation.
The students were collecting ISBNs to put on a website they had created to make it easier for other students to find the cheapest textbooks online. The incident highlighted the struggle students face in trying to combat the high cost of textbooks, a problem that has been acknowledged by virtually everyone in the higher education world.
The UC Davis Financial Aid Department estimates that the annual cost of books and supplies for its students is $1,590. The Government Accountability Office says textbook prices have increased at double the rate of inflation in the past 20 years, and the textbook industry brings in over $6 billion in revenues per year.
These costs are often prohibitive, even for students who are attending community colleges where the cost of tuition and fees is dramatically less than at public and private universities.
In an effort to make higher education more affordable and accessible, Congress created new rules for college bookstores in the Higher Education Opportunity Act it passed last fall. While many of the details are still being worked out, one of the biggest changes is a requirement that college bookstores publish a list of the ISBNs and prices of all the textbooks and course materials it offers.
Ideally, this will open up the bookstore business and make it easier for students to comparison shop. It will also help prevent situations like the one at Harvard in 2007.
Whether the new regulation is at all successful in achieving these goals will not be known until it goes into effect in July 2010. At the very least, though, this is a step in the right direction and Congress should be recognized for paying attention to this issue.
Fortunately, the UC Davis Bookstore is taking further steps to make life easier for students. Book department manager Jason Lorgan told The California Aggie that by mid-summer, a feature will be added to SISWeb that will allow students to view and purchase required textbooks online.
As long as this information is accurate and up to date, this will probably be a very useful tool for those looking to save a few dollars without having to e-mail professors or trek to the bookstore to hunt down ISBNs.
It’s important to realize, however, that the ISBN regulations passed by Congress can only do so much. While information is good, it’s not going to be enough to solve this problem. All Americans deserve an affordable and accessible education, and the cost of textbooks should never interfere with that. It is up to leaders in Congress, in the public universities and in the textbook publishing industry to continue working on the affordability issue and ensure that this ideal is upheld.