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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