Dave Roland

It appears that some students over at the University of Missouri?Columbia still have a lot to learn.  Mizzou's student newspaper, the Maneater, is reporting (article spotted via Combest) that the Missouri Students Association and the Associated Students of the University of Missouri, concerned by the high costs of college textbooks, are pushing the General Assembly for a "Textbook Transparency Act."  The bill apparently has a head of steam behind it, because 40 representatives have signed on as co-sponsors.

The bill has three elements: one good, and two that are outright ridiculous. The good point is that it would allow students to use excess financial aid toward the purchase of textbooks, which makes plenty of sense. But the bill would also require textbook publishers and bookstores to inform professors and students (respectively) about the books' pricing, the history of textbook revisions, and whether the books are available in other formats, as well as requiring campus bookstores to offer textbooks and their supplementary materials as
separate items — even if they would normally be sold in a bundle.

These latter two provisions are senseless for at least three reasons. First, all of this information is already available to anyone with the inclination to look it up online. Second, they imply that professors should choose their texts with more concern for the cost of the books than for the quality and currency of the material — even price-conscious students should recognize that part of what distinguishes the value of a college course is the wisdom of a professor's selection of reading material, not just her skill as a lecturer or instructor! And finally, these requirements would force the publishers and bookstores to take on additional costs in order to generate and communicate this information to "prospective purchasers." Any additional costs for the publishers will, of necessity, end up being passed on to student purchasers in the form of higher prices!

As the veteran of eight years of higher education, I can sympathize with students suffering from textbook sticker shock. But there are many solutions out there that would provide much better results for them as consumers. For example, instead of purchasing a textbook from the bookstore, look to an online bookseller such as Amazon.com or Half.com. While local bookstores can offer immediate ownership of the texts, online sellers can usually offer better prices because of the volume in which they deal, and it only takes a few days for the books to arrive. Even better, online vendors allow non-affiliated sellers to offer their own used and new books, usually at a substantially lower price than one could find through a corporation. Another trick for the cash-strapped student is to try to locate textbooks in either the university's library or another local library.

The bottom line here is that the information that these students are trying to highlight is already available, readily and easily, to any student wishing to look for it — as are any number of lower-cost options for purchasing textbooks. The students will actually be harming their cause if they are able successfully to enlist the legislature to impose additional burdens on publishers and bookstores, because it will only drive up costs and, therefore, prices.  A far better use of these students' time and energy would be to educate their fellow students about wiser ways of securing the books required for their classes.

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