Congressional oversight of textbook costs

I'm getting tired of the belief that faculty do not care about what the books cost their students. The House of Representatives is poised to reauthorize the Higher Education Act with a provision about textbook costs.

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:


To ease the burden of textbook prices on students, the House of Representatives' education committee has proposed strict requirements for colleges and publishers in its version of legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, the major law that governs federal student aid. Textbooks are part of the overall cost of higher education and should be included in the renewed law, said Alexa Marrero, a spokeswoman for the Republican members of the committee.

. . .

The bill also calls for two disclosures, one from publishers and the other from colleges.

Publishers would have to make clear, in all promotional materials, their textbooks' wholesale prices, the copyright dates of previous editions, summaries of substantial content revisions, and other formats—such as paperback or unbound—in which the products are available. Those proposals are similar to requirements imposed on publishers in several state laws.

But the federal bill would also place some obligations on colleges, requiring them to include lists of the required and recommended materials for each course in their published catalogs.


Okay, I can get behind the idea that publishers should be a bit more forthcoming with textbook costs when they're showing books to faculty. I like to know what books cost, because I think about my students when I'm selecting a book. I always have to look it up online. But I'm not totally convinced that this would actually make all that much of a difference, because faculty pick the best text(s) for the course. In the sciences, unfortunately, that often means expensive texts. In the humanities texts might not always be as expensive, but I think it's important to choose a book for reasons beyond simply finding the cheapest version. For example, I like notes in certain editions; I like the policies of other publishers; and some books only appear with certain imprints (i.e. 18th century rediscovered texts published by Blackwell).


The Chronicle article acknowledges some of the potential collateral damage of listing text prices in college catalogs: what if students avoid science courses (esp. pre-med and pre-nursing) simply because the texts are very expensive?

Of course the bigger problem comes out of the absolute invasiveness of such an edict. From the practical point of view -- as the article points out -- faculty can't have their book orders in early enough to make college catalogs. That's simply not possible. But what's most bothersome (it's bothersome, not worrisome) is that this suggests that congress knows what's better in the college classrooms across the country than professors know. Certainly, I'm all for more openness in the pricing of textbooks -- students do need to know what they're in for.*

I'm just tired of faculty being blamed for this. Sure, some professors assign unnecessary and expensive books. Most faculty don't do that.**

I am continually remembering that people outside of the academy don't actually know how it functions. That's not to say there aren't things wrong with it -- that's to suggest, instead, that before demanding solutions (or giving the "solutions") lawmakers might want to look into things like how things work in our system.





*I mean, some of them could give up their Blackberries or designer sunglasses and wallets, but you know, being seen is most important. But I wouldn't want to suggest to students that their priorities might be a bit, um, off.

** My students this semester were told that it would be okay to buy another publishers edition of a play that I'm teaching. It's okay, in that they'll not be too lost. But it's not okay because it's not the edition that I selected -- and the edition that these students ended up buying was more expensive than the version that I ordered. I wasn't the one who told the students to buy this other edition.

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