Affordable College Textbook Act Would Help Students, But Publishers Aren't Hearing It

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Carla Medrano, University of Houston broadcast journalism major, just paid $220 for a new TV Production textbook, no small amount just for one class. Every year students have to worry about how they will pay for their college textbooks. Some students receive scholarships and other financial assistance, while others are placed in a bind trying to figure out how to get their hands on cheap books. That soon may change because of the Affordable College Textbook Act.

Had this bill already passed Medrano would have extra money in her pocket. She said this bill could save her at least $100 each semester.

The Affordable College Textbook Act is a bill that would create grants for colleges and universities to provide free textbooks online in collaboration with professors and other organizations. The books would be licensed to the public where they would be able to customize and distribute the material as they please.

"Imagine all the money I could save," said Medrano. "Instead of buying books I could invest in more classes." Now, you're talking. But, book publishers argue that it's money out of their pockets.

David Anderson says the Affordable College Textbook Act the government is imposing on U.S. book publishers. "We oppose government putting their thumb on the scales in terms of how the private market operates," Anderson, Executive Director of Higher Education with the Association of American Publishers said. "We also think it's an unworkable proposal; we don't think it makes a lot of sense."

The AAP is a membership of organizations of U.S. book publishers that conducts public policy and conferences.

Introduced in November by U.S. Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Al Franken (D-MN) their goal is to provide students with access to open textbooks versus the traditional books that cost more. Senator Durbin was instrumental in the University of Illinois adopting an open-book project that helped at least 60,000 students.

The bill would also require higher education institutions to sell books individually instead of a bundled package, schools that receive funds will have to report how effective the program is in saving students money, and the Government Accountability Office will report the price trends of textbooks to Congress by 2017.

The College Board reported that for the 2013-2014 school year students at a public college, like UH, spent $1,207 for textbooks and supplies and $1,253 at a private college. That amount may have decreased due to the alternatives students have for their textbooks.

One way for students to pursue their degree without having to spend a dime is through Open Education Resources. OERs offer free educational materials such as lesson plans, open textbooks and course work that are used under license and used repeatedly by others. The subjects available range from Humanities to Mathematics and can be used in its original form, altered form, a combination of both, or redistributed all for free.

"If the act is going to help them get their books for free I definitely think this act will help students in pursuing their education," said University of Houston Spanish professor Burcu Mutlu. "I know for them in the beginning of the semester it's a struggle, they are worried about the financial help."

Students can also save money on textbooks by using online libraries. Since 2012, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have contributed to Rice University's online textbook program, Open Stax. Several books are available at no cost to five of the most attended universities. From 2012-2017, there is a potential for students to save $90 million through online libraries.

Anderson said that although Open Stax is a good resource it only has a library of six books and that doesn't satisfy the needs of students. The price to develop a book, he said, can be anywhere from $500,000 to $3 million, and this legislation may cost students more in the end.

"The money has to come from somewhere and if it's the college or university developing the books they may seek the money from tuition," said Anderson.

According to a survey released in January by the U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), there are only five companies that control the $8.8 billion of the publishing market. The professor decides which book is going to be used for that semester, not always looking at the price.

Sometimes the textbooks get updates each semester and the student is forced to buy that specific book. There are also professors who author their own books and expect students to use them for the course.

"It's a form of manipulation," said Brittmy Martinez, Program Coordinator for the Center on Applied Feminism at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

While in graduate school at UB, Martinez remembers when one of her professors authored a book and required it for class. She spoke with former students and noticed how the professor never made changes to the book, but the previous edition wouldn't suffice.

"This type of bill would turn higher education back into a social good instead of a business because it's forcing teachers to be what they're suppose to be in the first place which is not business people but teachers," said Martinez.

Anyone interested in learning more about the Affordable College Textbook Act can hear Texas Congressman Rubén Hinojosa speak at Rice University on March 31 at 10:30 a.m. He will deliver the keynote address for the CNX 2014 "Making OER Work," the two-day conference that will discuss the future of open education resources.

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