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OGDEN - Utah college students returning to class this week and next are finding they may have to take out loans just to pay for their textbooks.
Prices have risen at twice the rate of inflation in the past 20 years, a new U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) survey shows, and the average U.S. college student pays nearly $900 annually for books.
The reason? Publishers are packaging textbooks with supplementary materials that aren't optional: CD-ROMS, links to Web sites with additional information, and study guides, to name a few. They're also issuing more-frequent editions, making it harder for students to buy used books.
"It's just ridiculous," Weber State University senior Robyn Fujikawa said Thursday after spending $510 on textbooks.
Neil Garner suffered similar sticker shock while accompanying his two college-aged students to WSU's bookstore. The family's college textbook tab for fall semester: $890.
"It's already difficult for these kids to pay for college," Garner said, pointing to a paperback text for daughter Stacie's psychology class that set him back $135. "They work and save money for tuition and then get hit with high-cost books."
According to the GAO report, the nearly $900 average tab is 26 percent of what students at four-year schools pay in tuition and fees. The percentage reaches 75 percent for students at two-year schools.
Michael Winward, co-founder of the Utah County-based independent Beat the Bookstore chain, thinks he knows who is to blame.
Publishers, wholesale book companies and bookstores behave like a monopoly, he said.
Bookstores, for example, closely guard information about the books publishers sell professors on, Winward said. About two weeks before school starts, they put the books students need on their Web sites but not the books' ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers), which prevents students from shopping around for better deals. "There's not one bookstore in the country that includes the ISBN with its textbook list."
Brent Laker, of Brigham Young University's bookstore, emphasizes the publishers' role. Although he views the GAO report as "about accurate," he takes issue with a suggestion in the report that textbook publishers provide what college professors demand.
In reality, faculty members respond to what publishers offer, he said.
"The [professors] look at the textbooks that are presented to them and they may choose those that have more toys than others," Laker said. The competition among some of the large textbook publishers is pushing them to provide "anything and everything" that can go along with a textbook.
"That raises the price of textbooks," he said. For students to get cheaper books, they must buy them used when possible, said Michael Richter, WSU bookstore director.
Buying used means they must buy early - as soon they know which texts are required - and sell them back to the store when the term is over.
WSU students pay $70 for a used book that sold for $100 new, Richter said. "As long as that book is being used, we give them back 50 percent of the new book cost, so the book cost them $20."
An informal survey of 18 students leaving the WSU bookstore Thursday, however, found only two used books among those students' purchases.
Most were the higher-cost new books, many shrink-wrapped with supplemental materials students say they neither want nor use.
Consider for example, a second edition physics book. The hardback book comes with - advertised on the cover - an electronic access card to a Web site for additional information. The retail price for the book: $165.
Some students buy books in the bookstore to get the ISBNs they need to shop for cheaper versions on the Internet.
If they're successful, they return the higher-cost books to the store for a refund.
Fujikawa has no such plans because her parents paid for the four new books and one used book she picked up Thursday.
To recoup the costs, she will try to resell the new books directly to another student once she's finished with them rather than using the bookstore as an intermediary.