Textbooks & the Cost of Higher Ed

This morning at an on-campus retreat for FYE faculty, a presenter mentioned that, soon, universities will have to print textbooks, ISBNs, and prices in online catalogs for registration and such.  I thought, “nah, couldn’t possibly be true”–that’s ridiculous.  And yet, here’s the Higher Education Opportunity Act, signed into law last summer:

(d) Provision of ISBN College Textbook Information in Course Schedules- To the maximum extent practicable, each institution of higher education receiving Federal financial assistance shall–

  1. disclose, on the institution’s Internet course schedule and in a manner of the institution’s choosing, the International Standard Book Number and retail price information of required and recommended college textbooks and supplemental materials for each course listed in the institution’s course schedule used for preregistration and registration purposes, except that–
    • if the International Standard Book Number is not available for such college textbook or supplemental material, then the institution shall include in the Internet course schedule the author, title, publisher, and copyright date for such college textbook or supplemental material; and
    • if the institution determines that the disclosure of the information described in this subsection is not practicable for a college textbook or supplemental material, then the institution shall so indicate by placing the designation `To Be Determined’ in lieu of the information required under this subsection; and
  2. if applicable, include on the institution’s written course schedule a notice that textbook information is available on the institution’s Internet course schedule, and the Internet address for such schedule.


It’s already the case that textbook orders are required to be submitted preposterously early.  (As I understand it, this is to facilitate the buyback market, which has complex effects on textbook prices.)  If we have to provide all of that online, that deadline will get a lot firmer and a lot earlier.

Which is to say that, in effect, this is a regulation that will hamper creative teaching–or, rather, it will encourage professors to teach the same courses, from the same textbooks, over and over again.  It also will create public pressure for conformity in textbook ordering: “Why are *you* using the Broadview Anthology of British Literature, when everyone else is using the Norton?”  “Why do you require the Penguin edition of Dickens, when the Dover edition is so much cheaper?”

Textbook pricing is a complicated problem, and this is a fairly blunt instrument.  I’m in favor of information and transparency–I usually make my book orders as public as possible, and provide information to the local alternative bookstore and so forth–but this doesn’t sound like it was thought through carefully.

We might also pause a moment and mourn the idea that a student might take a course for a reason other than the professor offered the least expensive version of it.

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4 Responses to Textbooks & the Cost of Higher Ed

  1. Just what we need, another unfunded mandate that will eat up staff time (who is going to enter this data?)

  2. Interesting, Jason. I’ve included ISBNs on my syllabus since I began teaching. And I stalked campus bookstore shelves as an udnergraduate to figure out ISBNs for the next semester as soon as I could to save money via Amazon.

    But now that I’m on the other side of the equation, teaching a survey in which the only question asked the first day was, “The course atlas said we’d be reading Gatsby, but it’s not on the syllabus,”–not a question, I know–I don’t want to be locked into not being able to make changes to a class reading schedule. It’s in the interest of the students getting the best class that I can work with flexibility and change book orders (as I did) within a week of the semester starting (see http://twitter.com/briancroxall/status/1118390295).

  3. jbj says:

    I provide the ISBNs, too, and tell people about sites like isbn.nu–so I’m sensitive to costs. But flexibility should matter!

  4. Braden Hosch says:

    To add two complicating points:

    1. How this provision of HEOA is implemented will revolve around regulations that ED will release to guide and “clarify” what institutions have to do to comply with the law. Much will depend on the interpretation of “To the maximum extent practicable.” If a course schedule is published online, then we’re really just talking about expanding the database and allowing professors to upload texts as they decide upon them. Printed course schedules are another matter, but we might ask why we’re killing all of those trees anyway…

    2. Reporting compliance could range from the quick and easy (provide the URL to your course schedule w/ textbooks) to the ridiculously time consuming (provide the number of textbooks assigned in Fall 2010 by the number of books in each $$$ range: $0-24, $25-49, etc.). Much will depend on ED’s focus over the next 6 months.

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