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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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