On Oct. 8, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois introduced the Affordable College Textbook Act to the U.S. Senate. This act aims to “pressure the traditional college textbook market to come up with cheaper alternatives and innovations,” according to Sen. Durbin in the Chicago Tribune. Though the bill has been referred to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, no further action has been taken in the past two weeks. In 2013, a similar bill was introduced to the Senate by Durbin, but it never made it out of committee and on to the floor of the Senate. Unfortunately, even if this iteration of the bill manages to make it through committee, it still faces an increasingly Republican House of Representatives reluctant to increase social program spending. These national trends, however, shouldn’t stop USC from considering taking some initiatives of its own on campus.
Even without federal or state funding, USC should work with textbook publishers to make resources more accessible to students. Online-only resources, educational commons or even access accounts for USC students on publisher websites could make the difference for students caught in a financial pinch. Libraries should work with departments to standardize textbook use. Libraries could then purchase extra copies of textbooks and loan them to students at no charge. Additionally, departments should consider using older editions of textbooks, which often sell for considerably less than their more recent counterparts and, in many cases, have much of the same information.
According to the College Board, textbooks and supplies cost college students about $1,200 annually. Another article published by The Economist last year reports that “the nominal price of textbooks has risen more than fifteenfold since 1970, three times the rate of inflation.” College textbooks are evidently highly expensive, and many students wish they were cheaper or even free. Sen. Durbin’s bill would put more pressure on the college textbook market to create viable, cheaper alternatives to the bricks of paper worth hundreds of dollars that students currently carry around campus. If textbooks, or key textbook materials, could be made accessible online at no cost to students through federal, state or institutional funding, then a great financial and literal weight will be lifted from their shoulders.
For many students, simply paying tuition is hard enough. Thankfully, not every class requires a textbook, and many professors are using online sources of distribution such as Blackboard and ARES to reduce dependency on textbooks. Though these initiatives and book rentals from the USC Bookstore lower costs for students, the prices of the books themselves is still very high. One must look no further than the top floor of the bookstore to get a feeling of just how much some textbooks cost. ECON 317, for example, requires that students purchase Statistics for Business and Economics, a book that that the bookstore prices at $319 for a new edition. And PHYS 135A, a prerequisite class for four majors, requires that students purchase Physics: Principles with Applications, which goes for $233.75 new.
These books and many others are required by classes, and the most reliable source of new and used textbooks on campus is the USC Bookstore, which cycles proceeds from purchases back into the University. However, the prices at the bookstore are excessive. This steers students away from purchasing their materials through USC. Savvy students can find better deals on used and new books online, but this doesn’t keep student funds within USC. In order to keep money on campus, USC has to do a better job of being competitive in earning its students’ money. Slashing prices on books and offering other materials at low cost will accomplish that objective.
Even if USC makes less money per book, keeping the USC Bookstore’s prices competitive draws in more students, keeps money circulating within USC and helps the Trojan Family as a whole. Lowering student dependence on costly textbooks will free up student financial resources for other academic, professional and recreational pursuits. Financial barriers associated with textbook costs shouldn’t prevent good students from being successful. USC ought to invest in its best and brightest, even if those students do not have the income necessary to afford to purchase their books.