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Students flee campus bookstores in search of cheaper prices

Second in a Back to School series

Monday, August 25, 2003

By Bill Schackner, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

University of Pittsburgh sophomore Kaitlyn Knoll got her books this fall the traditional way. She trekked to the campus store, gasped at the prices, then reluctantly forked over $450 for a semester's reading.

At left, Kim Schneider, left, 20, a junior at the University of Pittsburgh, helps her sisters, Alissa and Natalie, right, both first-year students, buy books at the Pitt book store in oakland. Alissa and Naalie are taking some of the same courses and plan to share texts. They also plan to use Kim's old physics books. The sisters are from Shaler. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)


Previous article:

The keys to freshman success

She understands why many of her peers gamble that they can do better by shopping online, borrowing books from a classmate, or -- in a trend that worries educators -- simply skipping the required text altogether.

"If there was any way I thought I could get by in the class without using the textbook, I wouldn't buy it either," said Knoll, 19, a pharmacy major from Shaler. "It's just so ridiculous."

Just one of her 10 books for the fall semester at Pitt is a chemistry hard-cover for $137.35. That doesn't count the recommended study guide for the book that costs at least $21 extra.

Claiming they can lessen the sticker shock, online services from Half.com to Wal-Mart tout savings of more than 50 percent on some titles. Those services have won converts, despite warnings by campus stores that books sold over the Internet don't always match the edition required in class, can take weeks for delivery and aren't easily traded in for cash.

But the debate over book-buying methods may soon be eclipsed by a more troubling question: What happens if more and more students, fed up with the prices, stop buying the textbooks altogether?

Last winter, the National Association of College Stores mounted a campaign on 18 campuses urging professors to insist that their students buy the book. The campaign was a response to the group's own surveys indicating 20 percent of undergraduates nationwide choose not to buy the text for a particular course.

It's a figure that has been rising a percentage point a year, said Laura Nakoneczny, an association spokeswoman. She said the Oberlin, Ohio-based organization has heard from many professors who are worried that students will have a harder time keeping up in class.

"They're shortchanging their education, and I think that's the real fear of bookstores -- that market conditions right now are forcing many students to shortchange their education by choosing not to buy textbooks," Nakoneczny said.

"They manage by taking notes in class. They borrow the book from a classmate who has already taken the class before," she said. "Some of them make photocopies. Some use a similar book they get from the library."

At Pitt, Sybil Streeter, a graduate student and teaching fellow in psychology, doesn't see her job as policing students who don't buy a book. Like her colleagues, she will set aside a library copy, if asked, so students can read it there.

Still, she said, it's hard to complete some courses without having your own book.

"I don't think I could get through a class just going to a library and checking out a book for two-hour intervals," she said.

Adrienne Sadosky, 20, a junior at Pitt, has sometimes been forced to make tough choices, buying the required book for one course while skipping a text in another if she can hunt it down in a nearby library or by asking others.

"It's stressful," said Sadosky, who at least managed to win a $1,000 book scholarship this year. "You're basically taking time away from actually reading the book to go look for the book."

Even though some students are saying "no" to textbooks, stores selling them are hardly going out of business. Sales of textbooks throughout North America are an $8 billion-a-year industry.

In the eyes of some students, everyone in it profits mightily, from professors writing books and publishers minting them to schools getting a 3 percent to 12 percent cut of sales from campus bookstore chains.

How else is it, students ask, that the book they sell to the campus store for half off retail is reshelved and sold to another student at a 25 percent markup? And there are the frequent new editions, some of which don't look all that different from earlier ones, other than price.

"It's a closed market," said Pitt graduate student Robert Greco. "They can pretty much sell it for any price they want. You can't do much about it."

Bookstore managers insist it's not the gouge fest that some think, once everything from graphics to author research to marketing is tallied. "In all honesty, if we are selling a textbook for $10, our cost on that book can be anywhere from $8 to $9.50," said Rosemarie Slezak, director of Pitt's Campus Book Center.

And much of the profit, she said, is plowed back into campus enhancements like scholarships.

Still, with the average price of a new college text hovering around $80, it's not hard to figure why students over the years have been drawn to off-campus discount stores and, more recently, to the Internet.

Bestbookbuys.com, one such service that culls prices from 21 online bookstores, points to three often-used college titles: "General Chemistry," "Calculus and Analytic Geometry" and "The Chicago Manual of Style."

The books collectively list for $282, the company says. As of last week, they were selling online for $227.36 new and $22.99 used -- a savings of $54.64 (new) or $259.01 (used), the company says.

Steve Loyola, president of the service's parent company, Best Web Buys, says some professors who post syllabuses online include a link to his site. He calls them part of a campus "underground," helping students bypass a system that is attractive to retailers partly because campuses give the buyer so little choice.

Loyola said sales through his site are up since 1998 from half a million dollars yearly to at least $10 million. "A lot of it's simply by word of mouth," he said.

Online sales overall represent only a tiny fraction of the market, college stores say. And they contend that for each bargain found online or at an off-campus discount store, there are horror stories of students arriving for class with an obsolete text purchased from a retailer that didn't have access to a college's required reading list.

"A store that doesn't know will buy an old edition or one that is being discontinued very shortly," said Stan Frank, marketing director in New York City with Barnes & Noble College Bookstores Inc., operator of 475 campus stores from community colleges to the Ivy League. "Our philosophy is, 'Look, we have every textbook on campus in the right edition.' "

"You take a basic Samuelson economics [book] that is used in every school in the country. I'm sure that Wal-Mart can probably go out and buy that and cut the price and sell it for less than you might find in some college stores," Frank said. "But that's one book out of thousands."

Still, even those isolated price victories are savored by students.

At Juniata College, more students are asking to see the required reading list over Christmas and summer breaks so they can shop for book bargains, said Kathleen Parvin, assistant professor of English.

Students in Timothy Kelly's history classes at St. Vincent College know how to avoid paying for all six books he assigns. They form study groups, splitting the purchases and sharing books with one another.

"I tell students at the semester's outset that I do not require that they buy the books, only that they read them," he said. "They can be very creative to satisfy the latter without doing the former."

James Laughner, who will teach at Juniata starting this fall, goes even farther. He says many books "are much too expensive for what you get," and steers students to online works posted for free by authors, which he says often are superior.

He said new printed editions with nominal changes are really about profit-making.

"I have always encouraged students to avoid buying textbooks. Share, borrow, find library copies, read a borrowed text early and take notes," said Laughner, an assistant professor of education. "I'm on the reactionary end, but there are quite a number of authors who are putting their textbooks online to avoid this immoral system."


Tomorrow: Learning about the "new" childhood disorders, in Your Health. Also, the latest back-to-school gadgets, in Magazine.


Bill Schackner can be reached at bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.

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