Burned by book prices

The Baltimore Sun

While Maryland's multiyear freeze on in-state tuition at its public colleges and universities has been of great benefit to students and their parents, it hasn't frozen costs entirely. The fastest-growing expense on campus these days isn't for room and board, it's textbooks.

On average, Maryland undergraduates are paying as much as $1,000 each year for books and other course materials. The cost has been rising in double-digit increments in recent years - a much faster rate than for books in general.

At a meeting at Towson University today, the University System of Maryland Board of Regents can strike a blow for students (and their financially squeezed parents) by adopting proposed textbook affordability measures. The most straightforward, and likely beneficial, is to require professors to assign course texts much earlier.

By telling students what books they'll need for fall classes on May 1 and for spring semester on Dec. 1, it will be far easier for them to track down bargains on the Internet or elsewhere. The proposal also calls on professors to look for other cost-cutting options such as reusing textbooks from year to year instead of opting for new editions with the slightest of revisions and keeping a skeptical eye on publishers that bundle texts with supplemental materials of questionable value.

It would be foolish to require that all textbooks be used perpetually. The pros and cons of textbook choices ought to be weighed carefully, particularly in specialized graduate studies where cutting-edge information is vital. But the value of keeping course materials the same from semester to semester when possible is pretty clear, too. Under those circumstances, campus bookstores will buy back books at 50 percent of retail value and sell them at 75 percent so students save money twice.

If the cost-cutting moves are adopted today, average undergraduate textbook costs can be lowered by 20 percent to 30 percent this fall, officials estimate. Considering the otherwise woeful economic trends of late, that's as welcome as finding a classic novel at the $2 sale table.

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