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Communication Studies


Textbook law challenges textbook prices

Greg Hyatt
Capital Campus News
October 31, 2004

While lawmakers and students hope a bill signed by the governor will help lower college textbook prices, the new law may lack the teeth to enforce it.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 2477 on Sept. 16. It aims at challenging textbook publishers and universities to rethink their pricing policies
Authored and introduced by Assemblywoman Carol Liu, D-Pasadena, the law will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2005
California community colleges, the California State University, and University of California systems are all targeted. However, the UC system will have more freedom in their pricing decisions.

“Some policies required in the law are only recommended for the UC system,” says Steve Blackledge, legislative director for the California Public Interest Research Group, or CALPIRG.

“The Legislature can’t dictate to the UC what to do,” Blackledge added.
AB 2477 urges textbook publishers to reduce the amounts students currently pay for textbooks.

The bill arose from a study released by CALPIRG in January, that surveyed 156 faculty and 521 students at public colleges throughout California and Oregon.

The findings showed that University of California students would spend an average of $898 per year on textbooks, based on what they had paid in Fall 2003. In contrast, a 1997 University of California survey found students spent on average $642 on textbooks that year.

It might seem that AB 2477 is a victory for students in search of financial relief.
However, the law does not actually require publishers, school faculty, or universities to make price reductions. Nor will it hold them accountable for failing to follow through.

“This bill puts state recommended guidelines in place,” Blackledge said. “Publishers could choose to ignore the guidelines, but if they do, they will likely have to deal with irritated legislators in future years.”

Assemblywoman Liu initially intended to require publishers to offer “unbundled” options, those books not packaged with expensive supplements like CD-ROMs, which often go unused by students.

Liu also wanted to prohibit publishers from coming out with new editions so often.
But legislative counsel told the Liu team that these requirements would violate publishers’ First Amendment rights.

According to Lynn Lorber, a consultant in the Assembly Higher Education Committee, lawmakers opted for urging and encouraging, rather than making demands that flirted with legal trouble.

Although the law doesn’t include any oversight to watch over the process, lawmakers expect publishers and universities alike to follow through with the requests.

“Assemblywoman Liu and staff will be watching the textbook publishing industry very closely over the next year,” Lorber said.

In the event that the law is not as effective as planned, Lorber says Liu would introduce additional legislation to resolve difficulties in implementing textbook price reductions.

In the meantime, some publishers have already offered alternatives.

Pearson Education, one of the major college textbook producers, recently launched SafariX. This on-line digital textbook subscription service allows students to save as much as 50 percent on selected books by subscribing to a “web-book” version instead of buying the print version.

And Thomson Higher Education has announced they will cut prices by using fewer photos, less color, and unbound editions in loose-leaf binders.

As for eliminating those “bundled” textbooks, the decision will continue to be left to individual professors.

“When supplements are packaged with textbooks, that is generally the result of the instructor’s specific selection of that combination of materials,” says Wendy Spiegel, a spokesperson for Pearson Education.

AB 2477 calls for any bundles and packages to be economically sound and deliver cost savings to students.

Students anticipating lower prices will need to be patient. Although AB 2477 becomes law on Jan. 1, it will take time for individual universities to meet with their academic senates, Lorber said. Then universities will decide how faculty can best choose high-quality, yet inexpensive textbooks.

Schwarzenegger vetoed a related college textbook bill, AB 2678, on Sept. 16.

That bill urged universities to establish textbook rental services at CSU and community colleges, which would have been funded and maintained by students.
In explaining his veto, Schwarzenegger stated the bill would have allowed additional fees to be assessed to all students, even those not using the program, in order to keep the textbook rental program financed.

“The veto reflects a basic misunderstanding of the textbook rental issue,” said Assemblyman Paul Koretz, D-Los Angeles, the bill’s author. “Fees would have been levied at the campus level where it belongs; and it would have guaranteed students the right to purchase books they rent.”

CALPIRG and the Assembly Education Committee say they will keep a close eye on the progress of the college textbook issue. However, Lorber said the legislators’ main source of information and feedback will be from students.