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Former ODU President Weighs in on Textbook Costs for New York Times Blog

James V. Koch, Old Dominion University president emeritus and Board of Visitors Professor of economics, is one of six national experts on the costs associated with higher education, and textbooks in particular, whose commentaries were published this week in the "Room for Debate" blog of The New York Times.

The editors of the Times asked the experts to respond to the question: Will new legislation aimed at protecting students from textbook sticker shock make a difference?

Koch's contribution, headlined "Like the Pharmaceutical Market," discusses the similarity between the pharmaceutical and textbook markets. "The people who have the most influence over what is purchased (doctors and professors) don't have to pay for their choices. Students do," Koch writes.

He goes on to explain how professors and universities play a significant role in sustaining the artificially high cost of textbooks.

"Several studies indicate that most professors don't even know the cost of the textbooks they recommend, or that this is a minor factor in their choices. This makes the demand for textbooks 'price inelastic' - student buyers are insensitive to price increases," Koch writes.

"Add to this the complicity of universities in the problem. Typically, the more students spend on textbooks, the more universities earn from their bookstore contracts. Little wonder most universities don't like on-line textbook suppliers or rental textbook systems."

Koch also notes how publishers "bundle" expensive textbook packages that can include a book, workbook, CD and other course materials. Often, students are unable to buy the individual components and are forced to spend even more for their course materials. "If that doesn't work, they'll bring out a new edition and with the help of the bookstores, render obsolete the old copies," Koch writes.

In 2006, the Congressional Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance asked Koch to study the cost of college textbooks, the impact of costs on students and options to make textbooks more affordable. In 2007, he presented his findings before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. He provided some price-reduction recommendations to the committee, including instituting book rental systems at universities, requiring publishers to unbundle textbook packages, and requiring universities to provide all books lists on the Internet with an easy access link to used book sellers.

"Textbook costs can be reduced if institutions help students shop around," Koch said.

The Real Cost of College Textbooks

This article was posted on: July 28, 2010

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