Saturday, January 21, 2006

Textbook Example of Price Gouging

According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office study, textbook prices have increased 186 percent in the last 20 years. Many authors are constantly pumping out new editions with few substantive changes. Meanwhile, publishers are bundling textbooks with supplements that often go unused. Being forced to buy bundled books is like ordering a coffee black and being told instead you're going to have a caramel macchiato with extra whipped cream and sprinkles. And by the way, instead of 60 cents it'll be $4.50.

At Illinois we are blessed with the opportunity to learn from some of the finest minds in the world. It isn’t surprising that we also have our share of textbook authors. Two authors in particular, Dr. Fred Gottheil and Dr. Steven Zumdahl, are widely criticized by students over the pricing of their textbooks.

Professor Fred Gottheil has won more teaching awards than any other professor on campus. However, he comes out with new editions of his economic textbooks every three years. I called Gottheil to ask him about the difference between his editions and he told me that he updates the data and rewrites special sections he calls “Perspectives.” I compared his third and fourth edition on macroeconomics and immediately noticed that all of the chapters began on the same pages in both volumes, almost all of the text remained the same and only a modest amount of data was updated. As for the “Perspectives,” only 13 of 65 were replaced.

The current edition of Gottheil’s textbook for microeconomics is over $90, and is bundled with student specific access codes, requiring students to purchase new books every year that they cannot sell back.

Gottheil is currently working on a fifth edition of his book to add information on globalization. Professor, if you’re reading this, please wait to produce a new edition until it is educationally necessary and consider saving your students some money by putting the new material online.

Chemistry Professor Steven Zumdahl makes Gottheil look like a champion of consumer rights. His “new” hardback chemistry text is labeled Spring 2006 and according to one sales associate, it includes a course guide and homework assignments that are torn out of the text. This text is still the sixth edition, the same as last year. He didn’t even bother updating it. The insidious little trick of including material that can only be used once instead of distributing those items in class or making them available online makes used books obsolete.

As if these practices weren’t predatory enough, Zumdahl is also bundling both a study guide and a solutions guide with the text. The chemistry students I’ve talked to have told me these supplements aren’t useful enough to justify buying them separately. You can’t buy just the book, and the bundle costs an outrageous $144.

Many of our faculty members are doing their part to help keep costs down for students. For example, Geoffrey Love required an older edition of the B.A. 310 text to save his 600 students money. When the publishing company ran out of older editions, he negotiated to lower prices on new editions. Numerous professors are making the substantial effort to prepare course packets instead of requiring numerous texts. If you have an instructor who is making an effort to keep costs down, please be sure to tell them you appreciate it.

Recently, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn proposed the “Fair Textbook Pricing and Access Act.” This would mandate the unbundling of textbooks, create a sales tax exemption and require publishers to provide libraries with free copies of textbooks. The Illinois Student Senate will be advocating in support of Quinn’s reform package. E-mail us at iss@uiuc.edu if you would like to lend a hand.

Until substantive reforms are passed, ask your professors if an older edition will suffice. Be sure to take advantage of Web sites like illinibookexchange.com or campusi.com. For now, these Web-sites are your only protection from finanicial exploitation at the bookstore register.

Published in the Daily Illini on January 20th, 2006.

5 Comments:

Blogger Josh Rohrscheib said...

I want to thank Stuart Karaffa for his help with the research that went into this column.

6:28 PM  
Blogger Stuart Karaffa said...

I felt that at first this column was slightly too soft on the issue of textbook pricing. In my research however, I did find that Professor Gotteil has taken steps to reducing bundled materials, etc. Both the slight approach to Dr. Gotteil, and the more hardline stance against Dr. Zumdahl were well deserved.

6:39 PM  
Blogger JayBandit said...

You didn't mention that Gotheil donates all profits from his textbooks to some fund...has to do with his son, and I forget what it is.

3:30 PM  
Anonymous Amanda said...

Oh, that makes it all better! I don't care if a book costs $200 just as long as he donates his money to charity.

6:56 PM  
Blogger Josh Rohrscheib said...

Zumdahl actually collects corvettes with his textbook royalties. I didnt have enough space to include that. 650 word cap for columns. thanks for the comments Jason & Amanda

10:11 PM  

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