By Kate Johnson
Textbooks may be a lucrative business for educators and publishers, but students—who are told every semester what they must buy—are ready to write an obituary for the practice.
Rising textbook costs have become a critical financial concern for cash-strapped college students, who nationally spent an average of $900 on textbooks in 2011, according to U.S. PIRG, the federation of state public interest research groups.
The semester-by-semester march to a book store triggers fight-or-flight response among students like University of Wisconsin-Madison junior Nicole Zajdel, who vividly recalls those trips.
“I am always shocked by the price of my textbooks. I even started to cry from the stress of the situation my freshman year,” Zajdel said. “It’s something every student has to prepare for.”
Textbook sticker shock has students looking for an alternative, and some have found just that.
Logan Schlosser, a UW-Madison senior, spent $1,000 on last semester’s texts before realizing he could copy the book’s chapters prior to the first day of class and return them for full price.
“It took me four years to beat the textbook system,” Schlosser said. “I could not believe how much of an impact the extra cash had on my entire semester.”
Students are not alone in their search for a solution.
“The faculty is paying very close attention to the increased costs, and they actually are the ones who control the textbook itself—its request and its expectations,” said Lori Berquam, UW-Madison Dean of Students.
Many campuses have employed alternatives to relieve the heavy costs on students, such as promoting digital textbook programs.
Several schools—including UW-Madison, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Virginia, Cornell University and the University of Minnesota—began a new “e-textbook” pilot program this past January.
Bruce Maas, Vice Provost for Information Technology at UW-Madison, trusts the e-text curriculum and foresees a successful future.
“I believe we are seeing a gradual increase in the use of e-texts,” Maas said. “We are also going to see an increasing use of publicly available electronic content in many forms, including open texts.”
The program, still in its testing phase, uses Courseload—an e-reader software—to access textbooks, allowing students to carry class materials on any mobile device. McGraw Hill e-texts and any open content instructors plan to use in their class this spring semester are also incorporated.
The universities are paying for the e-texts, so the cost will not fall on students unless they want a printed copy, which costs about $30.
UW-Madison officials expect that, as growth in e-reader devices and tablets expand, universities and textbook publishers will make course content e-reader friendly.
“It is important for us to be a leader,” Maas said.
UW-Madison is clearly moving in that direction under the pursuit of a second e-text pilot.
“There is a promise of richer integration of other content and formats, such as media. The second pilot will have experimental design to see if learning improves,” Maas said. “We will have more time to work with faculty on the second pilot, which will likely include open texts and perhaps Pearson texts in addition to McGraw-Hill.”
Aaron Brower, UW-Madison Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, firmly believes the future of textbooks is online because of cost and flexibility reasons.
“When students have the same information that we do, available to us instantly, education can’t be about conveying information, or even helping organize information,” Bower said. “It has to be about distinguishing good information from the bad, integrating information from multiple sources and applying information from one area to another.”
Still, e-textbooks may not be a one-size-fits-all solution.
UW-Madison journalism professor James Baughman is very skeptical of the value of e-texts.
“My sense is that students say they want them, but it’s actually better to force them to own a book, which they can mark up. The same, by the way, goes for handouts,” Baughman said. “For years I would email articles to my students only to discover half or less actually looked at them. So, I have started distributing hard copies in class, then demanded that the students comment.
“This latter, old-school approach has worked fairly well of late,” he added.
UW-Madison sophomore Brittni DiTomasso also prefers hard text to the various online alternatives.
“I have found myself retaining information better if I’m physically holding a textbook,” DiTomasso said. “The online readers are usually difficult to read.”
Although the future of textbooks may be unpredictable, they still cost more each year.
Berquam advised students to work with the faculty to identify which textbooks are absolutely necessary, whether in hard copy or online.