Office of the President

In Print

Published in the September/October 2010 issue of Trusteeship magazine (Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges)
Kevin P. Reilly: March/April 2010 Trusteeship magazine column
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Reining In Textbook Costs

By Kevin P. Reilly, President, University of Wisconsin System


Textbook affordability has been an issue for many years, but the current economic climate has amplified the financial impact of these expenses for students. Although university administrators and boards are accustomed to being held accountable for keeping the overall price of a college education reasonable, confronting such “ancillary” charges may feel like uncharted territory. Yet textbook expenses exacerbate financial barriers to college access and completion, so they must be addressed. 

Statistics back up the alarm at ballooning textbook bills.  A 2005 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that college textbook prices had increased at twice the rate of inflation over the previous two decades. According to a 2010 report by the National Association of College Stores, students spent an average of $667 on required course materials in the past 12 months. Other studies estimate the annual cost for students of textbooks and supplies at closer to $1,100.

New federal mandates for controlling the cost of textbooks, as part of the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act, went into effect in July 2010, providing additional impetus to tackle the issue head on.  Congress added course materials as an allowable expense in the new American Opportunity Tax Credit and provided $20 million in start-up grants for campus rental programs.

There are no simple solutions, but boards can and should be active players in working to identify new approaches to the problem.

The University of Wisconsin System has long been engaged with this issue. At the urging of Board of Regents President Charles Pruitt, textbook costs have been featured on the board’s agenda four times in the last two years. In 2009, the board approved system-wide guidelines to help curb textbook costs, with provisions that included expansion of the university system’s textbook-rental program. Eleven of our 26 campuses—including seven of our 13 four-year institutions—now offer comprehensive rental programs. Students on those campuses each pay from $133 to $180 to rent all their books for the academic year. The guidelines, which were codified as policy in June 2009, also encouraged faculty to designate textbooks early so students can shop for the best prices.

In developing that policy, the board considered several factors, including: the university system’s tradition of shared governance with faculty, staff, and students; the primary role and responsibility of the faculty and instructional staff in selecting textbooks as an integral element of curriculum development; and market forces that involve bookstores and textbook publishers. Faculty members’ involvement, in particular, is crucial to any effort, because implicit in their authority over the curriculum is the right to determine their own syllabi and the books required to support each course.

Textbook rentals have emerged as a popular approach at a number of other institutions—as many as 1,500 campuses nationwide will offer some form of rental program this fall. Rental programs may carry significant start-up costs, however, and can lead to concerns about limiting textbook choices. Some people also firmly believe that students should keep their textbooks. These and other factors weigh against rental programs, so university policies need to provide flexibility and different options.

Textbook prices will probably remain on the front burner for some time, so university leaders should look carefully at new state and federal laws and regulations. As new requirements are imposed, like those mandated by the Higher Education Opportunity Act, boards and administrators must demonstrate their commitment to compliance. In Wisconsin, the Board of Regents requests periodic reports. Boards can also play a role in ensuring that estimated expenses for textbooks and supplies are regularly updated for financial-aid purposes, a vital concern for many students.

By helping to control the costs to students of higher education—including textbooks—trustees and administrators can demonstrate to them, their parents, and legislators that affordable access and quality education are real institutional priorities. The challenge is to develop policies that create the rich learning environments that faculty members and students want, while also providing meaningful financial relief to students.