Why it's up to professors to carry out textbook reforms

Faculty members: It looks like it's up to you to shoulder a larger part of the workload in bringing down the cost of textbooks.

And that means a lot of planning, organizing, gathering info -- and doing it all early.

A new report by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education says the large number of players in the national textbook market makes it tough to enforce major changes at the state level. That appears to leave you -- and some administrators -- to try to make sure reforms are carried out.

Because at the bottom of it all, "professors are the ones who select the textbooks used," said Tricia Grimes, state office policy analyst.

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The report was designed to bring legislators up to date on textbook reform, and so covers a number of different areas. For now, at least, I'm focusing on one -- the role of professors.

First a little background:

Federal and state laws require that students receive certain information about textbooks -- such as price, content revisions and available alternative formats -- early enough so they can shop around online for bargains.

Publishers and educational institutions have to disclose a number of the elements above. Although the state Office of Higher Ed says publishers reported that they're complying, bookstore providers told the state 57 percent of institutions provided ISBN and retail price information at the time students registered for courses.

The report states:

"This information was not consistently made available early to students."


One bookstore-operator survey question may be enlightening:

How often do the faculty submit textbook requests prior to registration for the coming term?

Never: 12 percent

Rarely: 18 percent

Sometimes: 41 percent

Often: 29 percent.

That said, 44 percent said a professor had not been assigned to some courses in time for information to be listed.

Bookstore operators said the following cost-saving options are available to faculty:

Used textbooks: 91 percent

Custom textbooks: 82 percent

Paperback options: 79 percent

Non-bundled options: 77 percent

E-books: 68 percent

Multiple editions: 53 percent

Print-on-demand options: 29 percent

Yet the report states:

"Just because these options are available to faculty does not necessarily mean they are used by the faculty."

The report also mentions a survey of Minnesota students that indicates that about four in 10 think professors take cost into account when selecting textbooks.


(To be fair, bookstore operators also gave publishers mixed reviews for awareness of and compliance with the new textbook regulations. Four in 10 gave publishers a grade of "C" or lower. And one might also ask whether bookstore operators are being scrutinized enough.)

In any case, the bulk of the report's recommendations seemed aimed at faculty.

Professors, it suggested, should:

  • Be aware of price. Faculty should understand the extent to which their textbook choices affect what students pay -- and tell students whether they've considered cost in choosing books for their courses.

  • Get their textbook orders in ASAP. The report said that's the single best way to lower costs. Earlier info for students means better buyback prices and more used books in bookstores. (It also means more time for students to shop around online.)

  • Consider a department-wide standard text for intro courses. That would create greater resale value for used books.

  • Ask publishers about content changes in new editions. Upgrading to a new text might not be necessary, and would save students money. Profs should consider allowing multiple editions, although that would mean edition-specific homework assignments.

  • Find out availability of various formats for your books. Faculty should work with the bookstore to try to get alternate forms such as e-Books, paperbacks or cheaper editions.

  • Make sure that optional supplemental material is unbundled from the textbook, and check the price.

  • Share more info about textbook options with students. The reforms only require publishers to provide a lot of information to faculty, but there's no reason professors can't share it.

The office of Higher Ed is scheduled to present this report to legislators tomorrow.