NU program may ease textbook woes

Nathalie Tadena

Beginning next fall, some Northwestern students will have a preview of textbook prices when they register for class.

The average college student pays $900 for textbooks each year, according to research by the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups. To combat this, Congress passed a law requiring schools to provide students with more information about textbook costs.

“The whole idea behind the legislation is to let students know what their book costs might be in advance of actually registering for classes, and that helps them and their parents plan for costs and to put together an appropriate budget,” said Northwestern Registrar Patrick Martin.

Under the Higher Education Opportunity Act, passed last August, all colleges and universities will be required by July 2010 to disclose the international standard book number and the wholesale retail price of a course’s required textbooks in the school’s online course schedule when students are registering for classes.

NU plans to provide information about textbooks on CAESAR when students register for classes in an effort to defray the cost by allowing students additional time to “shop around,” Martin said.

Associate Provost Michael Mills added that students will eventually have access to a three-year history of publications used in the course and a three-year price history for those texts.

“The devil is in the details, though,” Mills said. “We’ve got to figure out how we can get our arms around … all the Northwestern courses that are available in a quarter, trying to get some giant inventory of all of the textbooks that are available, and that’s going to be a challenge.”

Administrators hope to launch a pilot program for Fall Quarter 2009, when the class of 2013 will be registering for classes for the first time, Mills said.

“We’re going to pick and choose maybe half a dozen introductory courses that tend to have the same sort of textbooks, that have few changes in the textbooks that they require year-in and year-out, as a pilot,” he said. “And then we’ll see how that works, learn from our mistakes and then launch it fully by summer of 2010.”

Although schools are not mandated to provide textbook information until 2010, many, including the University of Maryland, the University of Virginia and the University of Tennessee, already post ISBN and book price information online.

However, collecting information about textbooks quickly may be a hurdle in NU’s pilot program because academic departments sometimes do not know which instructor will be leading the class and what materials the professor will need by the time students start registering for classes, Martin said.

“This might encourage departments and faculty to provide information as soon as possible, and the sooner the better, because then students can benefit from that information,” he said.

Professors can submit textbook orders to the bookstore as early as the third week of the quarter before the class will be offered, said Charles DePondt, Norris Bookstore textbook manager. Students will even earn more money – 50 percent of the book’s original price – when selling back their textbooks if professors indicate before buy-back week that they will re-use the same materials for the next quarter.

“It’s depressing if you spent $100 on a textbook and brought it back seven weeks later and you only get a small amount of that back,” DePondt said.

Students often look to other outlets such as Amazon and Facebook Marketplace to find cheaper textbooks.

Currently, Associated Student Government is examining the possibility of offering electronic course packets for students, said Mike McGee, academic vice president. However, informing students of the textbooks they will need in advance may encourage retailers to lower their prices.

“If they’re providing information to students that students can use to shop around, that’s called competition, and competition means sellers need to attract those students and the best way to attract students is by keeping costs down and offering a good price,” Martin said.

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