Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Judging a book by its cover (price)its cover (price)

Cost of 11 books: more than $200.

Cost of two course packets: about $100.

Total expense of one course at Northwestern: pricey.

“I literally couldn’t carry the books in two bags,” Music senior Dove Burns said about buying textbooks for her Survey of African-American Music course last spring. “You’re paying thousands of dollars to go to a university, then to pay $300 for books for one class is a little outrageous.”

Many student has similar complaints about how much textbooks cost. And despite the help of some professors, those who want to save their cash must research the different local bookstores and online services to find discounts. A few universities go a step further, employing rental services to mitigate high price tags.

Textbooks are expensive because prices are set by publishers and other costs involved with buying rights, paying authors and marketing increase the cost, said Stuart Lundquist, manager of Student Book Exchange.

“Sometimes (prices) are completely outrageous, but if you asked publishing companies, they would say, ‘How can you put a price on this kind of knowledge?'” Lundquist said. “A book as an object isn’t that expensive, but when you consider the knowledge contained within it, you can’t compare cost.”

At NU there are no official standards associated with textbook purchases or authority over which books are ordered and how many are required for each class, said Jeremy Boni, manager of the textbook department at Norris Bookstore, owned by Barnes & Noble, Inc.

“Some professors order 17 to 20 books for one class,” Boni said. “There’s no limitation whatsoever.”

Establishing standards for textbook purchases would constrict professors’ discretion too much, said Steve Fisher, associate provost for undergraduate education.

“It strikes me as somewhat artificial for the university to say, ‘You get $100 worth of books,'” Fisher said. “The faculty members of each course know which books are best for that course.”

But without any restrictions, the costs for students can add up. Black Women’s Writing, a graduate course in African-American Studies taught last quarter, required 16 books at a total cost of more than $200. This quarter Prof. Gary Fine’s Collective Memory course required 10 books costing about $230 altogether. Classes in literature, sociology and African-American Studies tend to have the most books, Boni said.

As a alternative to buying expensive texts, the University Library’s course reserve system allows all students an equal opportunity to use textbooks for free, Fisher said. But he also acknowledged that textbooks costs are a problem for most students, especially those on financial aid. “I don’t know how to solve that issue,” Fisher said. “I don’t know (of a) better system.”

While costs pile up, independent bookstores, chain vendors and Internet services battle to tap into students’ pinched pockets. But even in this technological age, local bookstore managers said most competition comes from other bookstores.

Textbooks are very important for business at independently owned Great Expectations, making up about 50 percent of all sales, manager Marc Giordano said. Although the bookstore does not deal with used books or competitive pricing like SBX, Giordano said some professors specifically order from Great Expectations “because they want to support a bookstore instead of an industry.”

English lecturer Bill Savage orders books from Great Expectations to support “intellectual sustenance” even though prices might be lower at a chain store.

“Great Expectations is high quality food for the mind,” Savage said. “SBX is quick and cheap, equivalent to Burger King or McDonalds. If places like Great Expectations go out of business, superstores will take over the world.”

Without independent bookstores to keep them in check, the conglomerates no longer would offer discounts because they would have a monopoly on the market, Savage said.

“I’ve gotten some harsh feedback from students (about expensive books) but I think anyone who’s engaged in the life of the mind can see that it’s important to have (independent bookstores),” Savage said. “As an entity they are far more important than superstores.”

Throw online vendors into the market, and competition for students’ business gets a little tighter. When online bookstores and electronic books debuted, they gave both independent and franchise bookstores a scare, but now the trend has lost its appeal. The managers at Norris Center Bookstore, SBX and Great Expectations agreed that Web vendors have not greatly influenced in-store sales.

“When online bookstores first came out it was kind of a novelty,” Boni said. “However, now they’re not offering the discounts they used to offer and people are not receiving books on time or confirmation of a problem.”

The initial attraction of cheaper books online wore off when students discovered the disadvantages of shipping and handling costs and waiting for the books to arrive by mail, he said.

While NU leaves its students to find deals on their own, some universities go a step further to cut down their students’ textbook costs. About 20 public universities nationwide use a textbook rental service, where students pay a flat fee at the beginning of each semester to borrow all of the books they need for their classes.

At the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, full-time students pay $45 per semester to rent books. Unlike NU, UW-Whitewater restricts how much money professors can spend on books for one class. “We have a limit for multiple texts: If there is one book in the system, there is no limit to the cost,” said Terri Meinel, director of bookstore services at UW-Whitewater. “If there is more than one book, the limit is $60 at list price.”

Professors also choose texts with the understanding that they will use the book for three years. “The philosophy is to provide the basic text a student needs for a class,” Meinel said.

Although the three-year guidelines might seem to undermine the quality or timeliness of the books, Meinel said professors can appeal to change texts early if they find a better book. Professors also can require students to purchase workbooks or other supplementary materials on their own, Meinel said.

While mainstream bookstores are out to make money, the textbook rental service is self-supporting, said Carol Coffey, assistant director of the Eastern Illinois University textbook rental program.

At EIU students pay $78 per semester to rent their books. “Students are very grateful, the parents even more so,” Coffey said. “We work for the students – they’re our main concern.”

But it’s not easy to switch over to the rental system because it requires a large capital investment, Coffey said. “We’re probably contacted by 15 to 20 universities around the country every year,” she said. “I know a lot of schools would be interested, but it would take millions to build up an initial inventory.”

Meinel added that size might prevent some schools such as UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee from implementing the rental system.

“The other thing could be the way schools were conceptualized,” she said. “A couple of our faculty members think students should keep their books to build a library.”

At NU, the rental system has never been considered, but the university could look into it in the future, Fisher said.

“Sometimes universities find it more beneficial to outsource books, the same way you see them outsourcing the places you can buy food (at university centers),” Lundquist said.

And though many students complain about spending too much on textbooks, Boni said most don’t even sell back their books.

“Quite a few do, but I have worked at other campuses and (textbook buyback) is far less here than other places,” Boni said. “I think (students) want to keep it for research or reference.”

Austin Harvey, Speech freshman, said he was upset with the policies for buying back books at Norris and SBX. Harvey received $1 from SBX for a paperback he bought for $13.

“I got a pittance. It was not worth it,” Harvey said. “Considering how much we pay
to go to this university the amount that we have to pay on top of that for books is ludicrous. There’s not much justification for it.”

While a textbook rental program may never be implemented at NU, it brings up several issues students have with buying textbooks. Some students feel that there should be limitations on numbers or prices of required books. Harvey said students shouldn’t have to pay more than $50 for books per class, keeping their total textbook expenses around $200 each quarter.

“I think some sort of balance should be made between quality and what we have to pay for it,” he said. “Usually students end up paying for books themselves and then they’re strapped for a month of weekends unless they whore themselves.”

McCormick sophomore Rob Funk agreed there should be a limit on the number or price of textbooks per class, as well as on how often professors update their books. A few professors at NU teach with textbooks they have written and require students to purchase the newest edition each time they revise the book.

“It’s so obvious that (professors) are just trying to make money when they update every quarter and only change a few things,” said Funk about his economics texts. “Any book is going to be updated while it goes through publishing, so it’s not like three months makes that much of a difference.”

Electronic textbooks and Internet services may not greatly affect sales at bookstores, but their value is not overlooked by some professors who support students in the battle against textbook monopolies and high costs.

Prof. Edward Muir, chairman of the history department, advocates the availability of more free online resources. “I’ve been trying to raise money to have a history Web site with links to as many documents and textbooks as possible, but the university has insufficient resources to help the faculty do this,” he said. So far, Muir only has been able to raise one-fourth of what he needs.

Both Muir and Savage agreed that professors have an obligation to order the cheapest textbook editions because it is sometimes necessary to use many books in order to teach a class effectively.

But even choosing from the available texts is difficult. In Winter Quarter Muir taught a Western Civilization that required seven books, altogether costing about $140. Muir said it was a challenge to limit the books he wanted to use and he could not have taught the class sufficiently without that many texts. Still, he was conscious of the textbook costs. “I certainly made sure that everything was in paper and I bought the cheapest version,” he said. Until more classes offer inexpensive or free online alternatives, Muir suggested looking for textbooks at the library or on electronic databases.

Savage also looked for ways to keep some money in students’ wallets by collaborating with the owner of Great Expectations. He ordered inexpensive books that the store would barely profit from to balance the higher costs of texts without cheaper versions.

Students also can check out different companies and student book exchanges available online that might alleviate the textbook money drain. The Associated Student Government created an online book exchange in October 1998. NU students can post and view entries through a link on the HereAndNow Web page.

The exchange is designed to help students find the cheapest textbooks, said Sean Melody, ASG technical director.

“By cutting out the middle man we hope to increase profits for the seller and lower the cost for the buyer,” said Melody, a McCormick senior. Melody did not know how many students use the ASG service.

Erica Losch, Education freshman, said she used the ASG book exchange to buy and sell most of her books.

“I probably got 75 percent of my books there,” she said. “I thought it was really helpful because I got my books a lot cheaper than they would have been.”

Weinberg sophomore Emily Morgano decided to look on the book exchange site after being shocked at the cost of her math books freshman year. “It’s convenient because the people are here on campus and the prices are really good, much lower than even used books at Norris,” Morgano said.

There are no price guidelines for the service, Melody said. “By having more than one person selling a popular book, the cheapest price sells the best,” he said. “It’s like a bazaar for books.”

But one problem with the ASG service is that not every book is always available. Morgano ordered from Varsitybooks.com when she couldn’t find the books she needed from friends or on the exchange.

“It’s much easier, and if I’m going to save a significant amount of money, I’ll use (Web vendors),” Morgano said. “I’d say the best option is to look at the book exchange and then if that doesn’t work, look online.” nyou

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Judging a book by its cover (price)its cover (price)