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Published: Saturday, 4/17/2004

Curb those textbook prices

WHILE parents groan under the increasing strain of rising college tuition, students try to find ways to stem the spiraling prices of textbooks.

On the West Coast, where the books now add $900 a year to the cost of college, some students pool assets and share one text. That may save some bucks, but it could be an impractical solution at final exam time.

The problem has prompted 15 members of Congress to ask the General Accounting Office to look into the textbook industry's pricing policies. That's something any student or parent who has handed over a check for an overpriced "Principles of Accounting 101" can support.

The industry isn't used to public criticism of the sort it took after student public interest groups in California and Oregon investigated textbooks that were assigned most often last fall in 10 public colleges in their states. In academic lingo, the industry flunked in its responses.

The results of the student research were staggering. Besides attesting to the $900 annual cost of college texts, it found prices jacked up with unnecessary embellishments, such as CD-Roms, photographs, and study manuals. It said most texts were replaced at 3 1/2-year intervals, and thought five more reasonable.

The Association of American Publishers, now headed by former congresswoman Pat Schroeder, protested in unconvincing generalizations.

To be sure there is a need to be up-to-date in the sciences, where new knowledge evolves constantly. Art history and world literature have slower evolutions. And should a new American history book be trotted out as soon as there's an immediate past presidency to write about?

Rare is the history course that starts pre-1776 and reaches the Great Depression and World War II. Also, if a professor gets to the present, the new matter could be handled easily and economically with supplements - whether for Enron accounting, Whitewater politics, or new planets. Before electronic technology, lawyers kept abreast of laws and their interpretation in such a manner.

One firm argued it had to spend $300,000 on research to update a text on calculus, a form of mathematics that hasn't changed much since Isaac Newton.

Professors could mitigate the price impact of texts. An instructor could, in lectures, introduce the latest relevancies. A university could put multiple copies of texts on library reserve for students to share, and spread the cost across its fees.

Schools could bargain with publishers for the best prices, like the Veterans Administration does with drug companies, or they could insist that cheaper versions of short-lived texts be offered - soft covers, cheaper paper, etc.

Textbook publishers won't like it. But they've profited handsomely over the years and should be able to withstand a measure of atonement.



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