The cost of coursework: textbook prices rise as Ducks arrive
When University of Oregon sophomore Sara Bass reached for the textbook Essential Clinical Anatomy at the UO Duck Store on the first Monday of classes, the $89.69 price tag didn’t faze her. She knew her books would be expensive, but she viewed them as “a necessary evil.”
Bass is not alone; this year, the average UO undergraduate will spend $1068 on books and supplies, $54 more than last year, according to estimates made by the UO financial aid office. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates textbook prices have risen 88 percent in the past 10 years. Students and bookstores want to cut costs, but publishers are raising prices to offset declining revenue.
The Duck Store subsidizes the cost of books with revenue from its sportswear sales by providing 10 percent off new books and up to 32 percent off used books, according to Katie Conway, Duck Store marketing director. But Conway says that this practice is rare in collegiate bookstores across the country.
Students and professors say the rising cost of textbooks is further straining the finances of those already facing higher tuition.
UO economics professor of practice Tim Duy took matters into his own hands.
“I am writing up notes for [my] class because I am not willing to tolerate the high prices unless the textbook really adds value,” Duy said in an email to the Emerald. “In my honest opinion, too often they don’t. I am not in the business of making other professors rich at the expense of my students.”
What’s causing the rise?
Although The Duck Store is a nonprofit and has various programs attempting to reduce the cost of textbooks, prices from textbook publishers keep climbing, said Bruce Lundy, team leader at The Duck Store.
Publishers are increasing prices in the face of innovative forms of textbook sales such as bookstores with rental programs, online publishers and used-book wholesalers.
Amazon entered the textbook market a decade ago and often undercuts its competition. For instance, the online retailer charges $21.77 less for the “Essential Clinical Anatomy” textbook than The Duck Store. But unlike Amazon, book publishers are often required to raise prices in order to stay profitable, and that means higher prices for places like The Duck Store.
Gates expects this trend to continue in the following few years, but believes that eventually a leveling off will occur and The Duck Store will see a stabilized year-to-year revenue, he said in an email.
How does The Duck Store help control costs?
The Duck Store continues to look for ways to keep textbook prices in check, but assistance from sports apparel sales is impacted by declining revenue.
According to 990 income tax forms, revenue for The Duck Store hit $42.9 million in 2010, but sales have declined to $29.8 million in 2014 – a $13.1 million drop.
“Some of the contributing factors are fan fatigue (unsustainable football success), increased competition, changes in consumer behavior in general,” Jeremy Gates, the chief financial officer for The Duck Store, wrote in an email.
Another way The Duck Store is curbing costs for students is a textbook scholarship known as Book Awards. Nearly $170,000 has been awarded in over 10 years since the program began. Twenty-five students each term are awarded the $200-300 gift card to be used on books and supplies. The store uses a lottery system when selecting students and Gates is one of the store employees that personally hands students a gift card.
“It’s always fun to get to play Santa Claus, so to speak, and brighten the day of someone,” Gates wrote in an email.
The Duck Store also offers a rental program for students, but this option isn’t always the cheapest. For instance, if the rental book is damaged, a student may need to pay for the book’s replacement. Employees are the ones that make the call on whether a book is too far gone.
“When I last rented, the bookstore wouldn’t take [the rental] back because of minor damage,” wrote sophomore Sara Bass in an email. “I had to pay more.”
The ebook option
As the Duck Store team leader, Lundy helps make ebooks more readily available for students. This option, typically less expensive than purchasing a printed book, helps students save money but cuts into publisher profits. To offset these losses, some publishers have begun selling directly to instructors, sidestepping college bookstores such as The Duck Store.
One ebook publisher, Greater River Learning Publishing, provides college students and faculty with “more engaging publications by integrating multimedia and technology,” according to its website. Six University of Oregon Instructors currently use Great River Learning as course material, according to the GRL website.
A recent report from the Student Public Interest Research Groups claims these publications, ones which require “access codes,” are monopolizing textbooks. Students are required to purchase the access codes or suffer a failing grade due to the inability to participate in online activities, according to the report.
“In one swoop, the publishers remove a student’s ability to opt-out of buying their product, eliminate any and all competition in the market and look good doing it because the codes are cheaper than publisher’s exorbitantly priced textbooks,” Ethan Senack, higher education advocate at the Student PIRGs, said in a blog for the Huffington Post.
The Duck Store is working on another solution. A new program would provide classes with “inclusive access” textbooks to keep up with new trends in market demand, Lundy said. Students who take a course using this new online textbook service would be provided with the digital format on the first day of class. It would potentially be cheaper than purchasing a new textbook, but if a student found a more affordable option, they would be able to opt-out of the program, according to Lundy.
Lundy says this program is still in the planning stages but he hopes to have it come to fruition by winter term.
For the 25 students per term who receive The Duck Store’s $200-300 scholarship, some help is readily available. The scholarship is a step toward helping students afford textbooks, but the rising costs for some can be the difference between a class and a meal.
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