ATLANTA – The Board of Regents may be boosting tuition by 9 percent this year at the state’s major universities while the overall economy’s inflation rate is essentially zero, but the University System of Georgia is trying to find less expensive textbooks.
Book prices have also outpaced inflation, rising 82 percent in the last decade, according to U.S.PIRG Education Fund.
By its own reckoning, the system will save students and their parents $9 million this year through various initiatives.
In addition to the savings, the innovations have the potential to also improve what students are learning.
“What we’re after is trying to keep students and make them be successful,” said Merryll Penson, executive director of library services.
Textbook publishers say the reason their materials are so pricy is the same one college administrators use to explain the continuous tuition increases: quality.
“Books cost what they cost because they are expensive to produce,” said David Anderson, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers.
Between accommodating multiple authors, editors, precision-graphics designers and extensive peer reviews, a typical textbook takes about 17,000 person hours and from $500,000 to $3 million to produce, not counting the cost of printing and shipping. Typically, the publisher only has three semesters to recover those costs in a very limited market.
Within Georgia, the University System started by discovering what textbooks are assigned the most often and seeking discounts for bulk purchases. It has also nudged faculty departments across the state to consider adopting more of the same books for the core courses like English composition and history.
A $200 algebra book can become much more affordable when publishers see a larger order.
“What we learned in talking with faculty: not that they’re insensitive, but they’re not the ones buying the books,” Penson said.
So, the system’s librarians are leading the effort to make professors more sensitive. They are also making them more aware of the free materials the libraries already offer, including hundreds of free textbooks online through the 20-year-old GALILEO (GeorgiA LIbrary LEarning Online) network as well as through other university systems.
Use of the free, online texts at Savannah State University, for instance, will save students $100,000 just in its first-year-experience course, a required class of all entering freshmen.
“At the beginning of each semester, librarians were struck by the number of students who wanted to borrow – even outdated copies – textbooks rather than buy their own,” according to one of the school’s internal memos. “To assist students, the library began to purchase copies of textbooks and placed them on two-hour reserves. While offering some help to students who were unable to purchase their text, librarians agreed that this was just a bandage (and not a very big one) in providing students with the resources needed to progress successfully and graduate on time.”
The librarians began a campaign to convince professors to assign free, online textbooks instead. They didn’t want to do anything to restrict academic freedom, just try to get more cooperation.
At the College of Coastal Georgia, they got some help from the chairman of the mathematics department, German Vargas. He jokes that going door-to-door talking to colleagues in other disciplines made him feel like he was in a different profession.
“By the third time that I did this, I was beginning to sound like a salesman…. I’m getting 15 percent (commission) on $0, which is what it will cost our students,” he quipped.
Although it took some convincing, some faculty came around.
Throughout the University System, professors are being encouraged to assemble their own texts if they don’t like what’s already available free and online. That’s what Vargas and his team have done with four of the most popular math courses.
But there are drawbacks to that approach.
One is the prohibition against including material copyrighted by someone else. Georgia State University is in the eighth year of a lawsuit over its faculty’s alleged copyright violations.
That means professors must either write their own material or sift through the millions of scholarly documents available that aren’t copyrighted. It can be a big job, according to American Publishers’ Anderson.
“It’s a wide range in terms of quality,” he said.
The industry isn’t deaf to the complaints about costs. It’s developed creative solutions of its own.
It’s tackling the issue of affordability by developing “digital learning platforms.” Instead of merely putting the contents of a textbook online, they are creating a package of interactive applications and materials. Using a smartphone, laptop or tablet computer, the students can read chapters, watch animated illustrations, take quizzes and communicate with their professors.
Faculty can alter the material, reorder the chapters and monitor students’ progress to determine what classroom instruction should focus on.
The digital texts are easier to keep current and ultimately cheaper to produce, Anderson said, because they are assembled from expertly done components rather than the costly, start-to-finish peer reviews for conventional textbooks. Plus, the interactivity boosts student performance, he said.
“It’s ever so much more engaging, and you’re taking in so much more information,” he said.