Tax-free reading

Here's a quiz for all current and future college students and their families: Which of the following has risen in price the most sharply over the last several decades — tuition, health care, the consumer price index or textbooks?

For the correct answer, please consult the back of your texts. Since 1978, the cost of college textbooks has risen 812 percent, according to the American Enterprise Institute. Few necessities can match that kind of price explosion. In 2011, the cost of college texts rose 8 percent, or more than four times the rate of inflation, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics.

The average college student in Maryland will spend $1,300 on textbooks and supplies this year, but that's only the average. Many will pay far more. In some instances, students have been required to pay in excess of $500 for a specific text.

There are a number of reasons for this. Publishing costs have increased substantially, but there's also a lack of competition in the industry. Many companies have become adept at making the most from their texts by printing new editions and releasing new supplemental materials like CDs frequently — even as these revisions don't add much substance.

As much as Maryland under Gov. Martin O'Malley has attempted to keep down the cost of in-state tuition at its public colleges and universities over the last six years, the state has had less influence over expensive textbooks. The University System of Maryland has since 2005 used the collective buying power of its schools to negotiate better prices. Some schools have set up book exchanges so that students can "rent" books or purchase used versions, and professors are often advised to try to keep such supply costs down where they can.

But there are limits to what can be accomplished. Thanks to tuition freezes and increased state support, Maryland's four-year public universities have dropped from the nation's eighth most expensive to the 27th. Yet the 261,033 students attending colleges in Maryland are expected to shell out more than $300 million for textbooks in the upcoming school year. And the cost is projected to rise by more than 20 percent by 2018, according to a recent analysis by the Department of Legislative Services.

The poorest college students may qualify for grants and scholarships that cover the cost of supplies, and the wealthiest families can always afford the bill. But for middle-class families, shelling out hundreds of dollars for textbooks, whether at a community college or a graduate school, can be a challenge.

Maryland can't change the marketplace, but the General Assembly might provide a modest form of relief that has been offered in other states. Legislation proposed in both the House and Senate would create two annual 14-day periods — in August/September and in January — when sales of required college textbooks would not be subject to the sales tax. It would apply only to students enrolled full or part time in Maryland institutions of higher learning.

The 6 percent savings would be modest, but it surely would not go unnoticed. For a $1,300 purchase, that would add up to $78. The tax break is expected to cost the state about $7 million annually in lost tax revenue.

The tax holiday has been proposed in Annapolis before, without success — likely because of budget shortfalls and the state's willingness to hold down tuition rates at its public universities. But the state's finances have improved markedly, and this is a benefit other states have provided to their students. Pennsylvania and Virginia currently exempt textbooks from the state sales tax. New Jersey and West Virginia do to a lesser extent. Delaware already charges no sales tax.

Ultimately, the problem of pricey textbooks may be addressed by the rise of digital media and affordable alternatives to printed materials. But it's a reasonable step that Maryland can take to supports its colleges and universities and the families that struggle to keep up with tuition and other costs. It would also seem a worthwhile investment in ensuring that the next generation of Marylanders is properly educated for an increasingly global and knowledge-based economy.

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