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College Textbooks: Are Schools Really Providing the ISBN Upfront?

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College textbooks have been in the news a lot lately—I’ve written about it here on the State University blog on more than one occasion!

A recent provision of the Higher Education Opportunity Act mandates that institutions of higher education which receive federal financial assistance must provide students with information on textbook pricing.

ISBN and Retail Price: Mandatory

Schools are supposed to post the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) and retail price information for all required and recommended college textbooks and supplemental materials for each course listed in their course schedule as soon as the schedule is available.

The law states that if textbook information is available on the institution’s online course schedule, then the written course schedule only needs to contain a notice that the textbook information is available on the internet course schedule and the internet address for the schedule.

Students Prefer to Shop Around

This is being done in part so students can shop around for better textbook prices—textbooks are often considerably cheaper online than they are in campus bookstores—but some school officials fear that students will begin choosing courses based on the price of the required textbooks or that professors who want to teach large classes may feel obliged to assign cheaper reading material.

The law has also changed to help prevent college textbook authors and publishers and from issuing new editions with only miniscule changes. If students are able to save considerable amounts of money by purchasing used textbooks or renting them, new copies of the book aren’t flying off the shelves, meaning less profit for authors and publishers.

New Editions Often Offer Little Change

According to a New York Times opinion piece by Ian Ayres, a professor of law and economics at Yale University, textbook authors often change a few initial pages of material early in the book so that remaining material will appear on different pages, meaning any student attempting to use an older edition of the book will not be on the same page as the professor during discussions and assignments.

Textbook publishers are now required to provide professors or officials in charge of selecting course materials with the copyright dates of the three previous edition of the textbook together with a “description of the substantial content revisions made between the current edition of the college textbook or supplemental material and the previous edition.

Do Students Even Care if they Have the “Old” Book?

Based on my own experiences in college, most professors do not lecture or read directly from the textbook during class, and assignments taken from the book are rare. On more than one occasion I used an older edition of the required textbook and fared just fine.

Last summer I accidentally purchased the wrong edition of a so-called “required” textbook. My instructor actually flipped through my book with me whenever he had to assign reading to make sure I would read the correct section. He was an understanding and easygoing guy so I can’t speak for all professors, but it really wasn’t a big deal.

Is Your School in Compliance?

Despite the fact that the textbook provisions to the Higher Education Opportunity Act are now law, good-faith efforts by schools to provide the information are considered “good enough.” In other words, if your college or university is not complying there’s little you can do—you can’t sue your school because they did not provide you with the ISBN before the first day of class.

The Secretary of Education is authorized to take administrative action which includes the imposition of fines against institutions that do not comply, but the most severe penalty the Department of Education could impose for failure to comply is a limitation or termination of the school’s participation in the Title IV financial aid programs.

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Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.


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Greg almost 6 years ago Greg


Shopping for books for my fiancees classes and taking the supposed ISBN from the bookstore reveals ZERO search results from google or any other online bookstore. I think they are making up their own ISBN numbers

Jeff almost 6 years ago Jeff


I recently went to purchase my books for 1 class, which came to almost $300.00. In looking on-line I found the same book but the international version for $100.oo cheaper. Asking the person who orders the books why this is they told me it is due to the marketing laws and schools can be fined if they use an international book. The ISBN number are the same on these. He stated the cheaper ones are for lower economic countries. Why is this?

Hemlock Tea over 6 years ago Hemlock Tea


I just enrolled for Spring 2011 classes at my local community college. They only way to find out what books are required for each course is to go through the online bookstore (efollet affiliated website) or to go to the physical on campus bookstore. The ISBN numbers for the books are not listed, only the Title, author and edition number, and occasionally a photo of the cover. There is no way to know if you are getting the correct book for the course other than to buy through their bookstore. This seems to be in violation of the HEOA, since if the ISBN lists are available anywhere, I can't seem to find them anywhere on the school's website. The individual courses and even the departments don't really have their own pages online, either. Of course, administration offices are closed due to the holidays, so I can't call them to find any of this information, so I blindly bought what I thought were the correct books online through various sources. If I got the right books, I managed to spend less than half of what the school bookstore was charging. I'm sad to see that the HEOA is essentially toothless and I as a higher education "consumer" have no recourse where the law is concerned to get any sort of justice.

spalmer almost 7 years ago spalmer


My school is getting better about this; however, there's always one class each semester that only gives the title (no picture, no author, no ISBN) and unfortunately, sometimes there are multiple books with the same title. I think there should be action taken against schools who repeatedly violate this law because students end up unable to get their textbooks, unless they pay the school's ridiculous price.