Testimony of Lucas Zucker on textbook affordability

Testimony of Lucas Zucker, UC Berkeley CALPIRG student at the California State Legislative Joint Committee Oversight Hearing Affordability of College Textbooks: Factors for Rising Costs and Strategies to Control Costs for Students Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Thank you Chairman Lara and committee members for the opportunity to speak on behalf of the student perspective on this important issue. My name is Lucas Zucker.  I am a senior majoring in political economy at UC Berkeley, and I am the former statewide board chair for CALPIRG, a statewide advocacy organization that has conducted research and promoted awareness of this issue for nearly a decade.

The cost of textbooks is a huge issue for students on my campus and across the state, and it continues to grow worse as prices rise at more than four times the rate of inflation.

The reason textbooks are so expensive is that the textbook market lacks important economic pressures that keep prices in check.  Because textbooks are assigned by professors, students have no choice but to buy their books regardless of how much it costs.  This gives publishers an unfair advantage to set high prices and engage in practices that they would never get away with in a normal market.  CALPIRG’s research has documented many of these practices, which range from issuing unnecessary new editions to undermine important cost-saving measures like used books and renting, to bundling textbooks with expensive supplements that force students to pay more or undermine resale value.  Furthermore, the publishing industry has failed to harness technology as a solution, instead producing e-textbooks that are expensive, limited and expire after a set period of time, leaving students nothing to keep, share or sell back.

I would like to share with the committee some of my first hand experiences with buying textbooks.

When I went to the bookstore at UC Berkeley on my first week of school, I was shocked.  Having spent much of my childhood flipping through used paperback novels at local bookstores, I couldn’t imagine what could possibly make any book cost $200.  With steep tuition increases making my annual tuition bill thousands of dollars more than I expected as a freshman, I need to save money wherever I can.  Over the last four years, I’ve tried many different ways to lower my textbook costs.  For example, I would shop online for the best deal, but often wait for books to be delivered from across the country, starting the semester up to two weeks behind on my reading.  My first year I bought an old edition of an Econ 1 textbook to save money, which was virtually the exact same content, but all the sections had been rearranged.  So I talked to a friend in the class on the phone every night to find out which pages in my edition corresponded to that night’s reading in the syllabus.  I’ve shared books with friends, making it difficult to study for midterms.  One semester I even skipped buying the books I couldn’t find a good deal for online, leaving me scrambling to find out what the readings were about before class.  I’ve never bought an e-book in my four years because they rarely provide any significant savings.

Once the semester is over, I often try to sell back textbooks I don’t plan to keep.  For a few of the largest textbooks that professors use every semester without changing editions, the bookstore will offer 50% back, but this is a rare occurrence.  Typically I’ll expect about 20$ back on a $200 textbook, and for a small book, my campus bookstore usually offers $1 to buy it back.  My first semester I was so surprised at the low offer that I walked away from the counter without selling my books back, thinking I must be able to get a better price somewhere else.  Of course I never did. 

I’m not the only one who’s experienced these difficulties with textbook costs.  In fact, this is becoming an increasingly common trend – a 2011 survey released by CALPIRG found that 7 in 10 students who responded had skipped some of their textbooks because the cost was too high.  Alarmingly, about three quarters of those students believed that not having a required text could hurt their grades. 

Textbook prices will only begin to come down when more affordable, high-quality options begin to enter the market, and faculty take advantage of those options.  In our view, the most promising solution is open-source textbooks, which are offered online under a license that allows the public to freely use, adapt and distribute the text.  Printed copies of open textbooks be created for $20-40 – a fraction of the cost of traditional textbooks. 

Our research shows that students still have widely ranging preferences with respect to textbook formats – 75% of the students we surveyed in 2010 said that they prefer printed textbooks over digital.  Open textbooks give students a wide range of options while also providing dramatically lower costs.  Helping more open textbooks enter the market could eventually drive down costs and help more affordable, efficient publishing models take hold.

Skyrocketing textbook costs are an incredibly important issue for millions of California students and I’m glad to see the legislature addressing it.  Thank you Chairman Lara and committee members for holding this hearing and allowing me to testify.