Tetstimony in Favor of An Act Relative to the Production and Pricing of College Textbooks

Testimony in Favor of An Act Relative to the Production and Pricing of College Textbooks (HB 1200)
Before Chairmen Murphy, O’Leary, and members of the Joint Committee on Higher Education

My name is Saffron Zomer and I am the program director with the Massachusetts Student Public Interest Research Group.  MASS Student PIRG is a non-profit, non-partisan consumer advocacy organization with chapters at colleges and universities across the state.  I am here today to testify in favor of the Act Relative to the Production and Pricing of College Textbooks (HB1200) filed by Representative Steven Walsh.

Today’s college students are under enormous financial pressure. The gap between tuition and fees and financial aid leaves many students working long hours through college, struggling to make ends meet, and graduating with large debts. The high cost of textbooks is yet another financial burden. The cost of textbooks is not just a drop in the bucket of tuition and fees; the average student spends about $900 per year on textbooks, which is about 30% of tuition and fees at a community college in Massachusetts. Moreover, textbook prices are rising at about four times the rate of inflation.

Last Fall, MASSPIRG conducted a survey of 287 professors from a variety of disciplines at Massachusetts colleges and universities to get their views on textbook industry practices that drive up prices. We identified three main areas of concern:

1. Publishers are not adequately disclosing price information to the faculty, who do care about the cost to students and want better information.

Faculty research and identify textbooks for their classes through two primary means: publishers’ sales representatives and the Internet.

Of the professors who told us that they regularly use publishers’ websites to research textbooks:

  • only 23% rated the site they use as ‘informative and easy to use’
  • less than half said that the site typically lists the price of the book

Professors who primarily use non-publisher websites, such as Amazon.com, report higher satisfaction:

  • 61% rated the site they use as ‘informative and easy to use’
  • 77% told us that the site usually lists the price of the book

For professors who meet with sales representatives to research textbooks:

  • 77% told us that sales representatives rarely or never volunteer the price
  • And even when professors directly asked for the price during a sales meeting, only 38% reported that the sales representative would always disclose the price.

2. Publishers need to provide unbundled alternatives to bundled textbooks and disclose the availability of these alternatives.

Bundling refers to the practice of shrink-wrapping a textbook with additional materials such as CDs, pass-codes, or workbooks.

Only 50% of the professors who told us that they assigned a bundled book last semester said that they used the additional materials often. One-third said that they either could not assign the book they chose without the bundle or did not know if that option was available. This finding stands in contrast to the claims of many in the publishing industry that most of their books are available unbundled.

House Bill 1200 would take an important first step towards protecting students and faculty from the unfair business practices which drive up the price of textbooks, by ensuring that faculty have the information and options that they need to make optimal decisions on behalf of the students they teach. This can only lead to better outcomes and lower costs in the long term. I am enclosing with my testimony a collection of ‘horror stories from students around the state to give you a sample of the types of problems that textbook prices are causing to students from all walks of life.

I hope you will pass this bill favorably from your committee. Thank you for your time and consideration, and as always, look forward to working with you on these important issues.