Proposed study on textbooks won’t help lower cost

Like tuition, fees, rent and parking passes, textbooks are one of the inevitable expenses of college life that leave many students grumbling. The cost of buying textbooks and supplies adds up quickly each semester, especially when individual volumes often have triple-digit price tags, and selling books back rarely provides much relief.

The burden of purchasing textbooks is nearly universal for college students. Nationally, students at four-year public universities spend an average of nearly $900 each year, according to a 2005 study by the U.S. General Accounting Office, and the cost of textbooks has been rising at twice the level of inflation since the mid-1980s.

State Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro, hopes that the Kentucky General Assembly can help reduce the price of textbooks. He has filed a bill calling for state government to study the cost of textbooks at both the primary school and college levels, and he said in a Monday Kernel article that he would eventually like to see printed textbooks replaced with online materials.

On the surface, it seems like a welcome endeavor, as any help in reducing the cost of education would be appreciated. However, Nelson’s proposal as it stands is unlikely to actually achieve this goal.

Completing a study will mean expending state funds and research staff for what will most likely be little gain. Textbook prices have been studied before, most notably in the federal General Accounting Office report from July 2005, and there does not seem to be a compelling reason for the state to repeat the work that has already been done. The textbook market in Kentucky is not significantly different from that of any other state, and the federal report is still recent and relevant.

Although college students are one of the more technologically savvy segments of the population, accessing textbooks online is hardly a solution to the cost problem. In the near future, the availability of books is a major concern, as it’s up to the publishers to make their content available electronically. And while lugging several heavy textbooks is certainly annoying, printed material avoids such persistent technological issues as software crashes, spotty Internet connections and eyestrain from prolonged computer use.

Ultimately, the price a student pays for textbooks each semester is determined by the instructors and the course materials they choose to use. When a professor requires multiple textbooks or a new edition for which there are no used books available, the cost goes up for every student in the class. Oftentimes these requirements are justified, though sometimes they are not. While there should be policies in place to protect students from spending extra money unnecessarily, they should be set by UK and other universities on an individual basis; the General Assembly should not try to micromanage how textbooks are selected.

The rising cost of textbooks is an issue that needs to be addressed, but in a meaningful way that will bring results. Using state resources to duplicate existing research is unlikely to solve the problem. Instead, Kentucky’s colleges should lead the way in finding ways to reduce the cost of education through more effective use of textbooks.