Lawmakers Consider Bill on Costs Of Textbooks

A month into the fall semester, Nathassia Torchon has already had two tests in her precalculus class and is approaching her first history exam. But the Massachusetts Bay Community College student said she could not afford the $330 price tag for two of the required textbooks until this week.

“They always tell you 20 hours is good enough to work and go to school full time,” said Torchon, 21, of Mattapan. “I have to work three jobs to pay for two books.”

Torchon was one of dozens of students who attended a Joint Committee on Higher Education hearing yesterday in which lawmakers considered a bill designed to reduce the rising cost of textbooks, which can cost students roughly $900 a semester, according to the Massachusetts Student Public Interest Research Group.

Within the last decade, the group said, the cost of textbooks has risen at four times the rate of inflation, driven by practices such as bundling books with unnecessary products like workbooks and CDs and producing new editions whose added information does not warrant the higher fee attached to each revision.

The bill — filed by Representative Steven M. Walsh, a Lynn Democrat — would limit companies from bundling books. It would also require publishers to provide faculty with a list of the company’s products, wholesale prices, and estimated length of time the publisher intends to keep the product on the market.

But representatives from publishing companies said that some materials are intended to be integrated and used together.

Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education with the Association of American Publishers, said one of the most popular college art books is required to be sold with a CD that includes thousands of high-resolution images.

“You take that apart and neither of them will be of any value to anybody,” Hildebrand said.

Publishers and their representatives also said that third-party agreements can dictate how products will be sold and that students can sometimes save more by buying bundled materials than each book separately. They also said that faculty members determine which books to buy, based on students’ varying needs and abilities.

“The price of textbooks and course materials is and will continue to be important,” said Sandi Kirshner, chief marketing officer for Pearson Education, “but not more important than the success of our students and the reputation of our state colleges and universities as they strive to give students both a degree and an education.”

The bill received a favorable response from the committee, with chairman Kevin J. Murphy, a Lowell Democrat, promising to lobby for it in the House.

Hildebrand said publishers have roughly 25,000 titles, making it impractical to provide each professor with the entire list, when most of the books may have nothing to do with their area of study. He said the companies would also not want to advertise when they will release a new edition.

He said that publishing companies are not opposed to sharing information, but that they want to find a balance between achieving transparency and keeping the prices of textbooks down.

A survey of 287 professors teaching various disciplines at Massachusetts’ colleges and universities found that publishers do not often disclose price information to faculty members, according to MASSPIRG.

But Hildebrand said that faculty could look up the cost of books online, if they wanted, and are making their decisions based less on price than on what’s “best for their students.”

“There are more low-cost, printed textbook options today than ever before in history,” Hildebrand said.

The hearing was held weeks into the first semester of the school year for many college students. Some argued yesterday that the high cost of textbooks disproportionately affects low-income students by limiting their academic success.

The issue is a hot topic on local campuses, including Harvard University, where the school bookstore has refused to give students a list of required course books so they can be put on a student-run online bookstore that has alternative sources, often at lower prices.