(AP) - The 2,000 pages of reading for professor Martin Sampson's foreign policy course is spread over seven books, all of which can be purchased online at a combined cost of $83 with shipping.
Worried about his students' ability to afford standard college textbooks, the University of Minnesota professor purged them from his syllabus in favor of books they could get at places like Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.
"I'm not going to double the price of the course for students simply so I can add a textbook," Sampson said.
Some Minnesota legislators wish every professor would heed Sampson's bucks-and-books thoughtfulness.
Concerned by the ever-rising costs of college textbooks, they're debating whether to require professors to be more cost-conscious in choosing their course material and make the industry justify how they price, package and revise textbooks.
“Reasonable profit makes sense. But the margins [the publishers] are making on these textbooks is just absurd.”Rep. Frank Moe, who teaches at Bemidji State University
Publishers have argued that such proposals interfere with their constitutional rights, and threaten the academic freedom of faculty, too.
It's an issue being confronted in at least a dozen statehouses from California to Connecticut, where students are pressuring legislatures for leverage against an industry that pulls in more than $6.5 billion a year at college bookstores.
"This is the hidden cost to higher education," said Democratic Rep. Frank Moe, the Minnesota's bill sponsor who also teaches at Bemidji State University. "Reasonable profit makes sense. But the margins they are making on these textbooks is just absurd."
The Minnesota bill would require that bundled material also be available as individual pieces; that publishers disclose scheduled or planned revisions; and that schools give students itemized cost information before they register for a class.
Around the country, students are also seeking school-run rental networks as a cheaper alternative. But those can carry steep startup costs; in Minnesota alone, a pilot program would take $10 million to get off the ground.
Lawmakers in Florida, Indiana and Nebraska are among those considering eliminating sales taxes on textbooks, as 18 states now do.
The young advocates come armed with government reports, including a 2005 federal study estimating that the average student at four-year colleges spends about $900 per year on books and supplies. (The publishing industry's own estimate is $644 annually.)
And they show lawmakers shrink-wrapped packages of textbooks, workbooks, audiotapes and digital materials required for some classes. At one Minnesota hearing, student leaders carried a $193 bundle of materials for a single Spanish course.
Winona State University senior Rick Howden recently tallied his book burden and figured he will have spent $4,500 by graduation. That includes a $142 text he had to buy for a business class this semester; he says he's barely opened it.
"It ends up sitting on the floor next to my desk," Howden said. "It's hard for me to justify."
To Bruce Hildebrand, an official with the Association of American Publishers, the emotion of the debate has crowded out the realities of textbook economics.
Top-line textbooks are lucky to reach 40,000 copies in sales, he said, compared with bestselling books in the popular press that can reach millions of copies sold before they even hit paperback.
After a textbook's debut year, students can pick them up on the resale market, meaning publishers have one big chance to recapture their investment.
Hildebrand was in Arkansas on Wednesday fighting a bevy of textbook bills after already hitting Illinois and Minnesota this year. He rejects claims that the nation's 4,500 textbook publishers are hiding costs, passing cosmetic changes off as new editions or packaging books with extra materials for the sake of making money.
"We're not arguing over the quality of the materials. We're not arguing over the positive impact of technology," Hildebrand said. "We're arguing over used book sales."
As new books come in, students can find it more difficult to recoup money by selling old copies back to bookstores.
The publishing industry estimates that the average textbook edition has a 4-year lifespan and a price tag of $52.
But Danny Katz, a campus organizer with the California Public Research Interest Group, said publishers are overdoing it.
"Certainly there are some subjects with a legitimate need for a new textbook every couple of years because the content changes so rapidly," Katz said. "Calculus hasn't changed in 300 years so there's no need for a new edition of a textbook every couple of years."
In 2004, Katz's group successfully pushed for a California law urging publishers to be more transparent about their pricing and estimate how long an edition will be produced. Faculty were encouraged to pursue cheaper book options.
The law didn't make anything mandatory, making it hard to tell if it affected prices. That's why California legislators are being asked this year to approve more rigid standards.
Connecticut lawmakers adopted a publisher transparency law last year. This year, they're weighing legislation requiring state education officials to study whether that measure has helped students save money, whether the publishers' information has been helpful and complete, and whether professors are using it when they decide which texts to assign.
Sampson, the University of Minnesota professor, doubts the proposed legislation would make a difference - if it could even be enforced. In the meantime, he'll keep searching for bargains for his students.
"I don't have some vendetta against textbooks," he said. "There are books I would love to use. If they were available for 25 bucks I'd use them in a flash."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)