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Open books: Cutting cost a goal of bill

As a new semester gets underway, students' laments can be heard across the Commonwealth as they once again shell out hundreds of dollars for textbooks. Relief, though, may be in the offing. On Wednesday, the Joint Committee on Higher Education will hear a bill aimed at making textbooks more affordable.

Sponsored by Representative Steven M. Walsh, the legislation would require publishers to give students the option to buy textbooks and accompanying materials separately, rather than requiring students to buy the items as a package. The bill also calls for requiring publishers to disclose how long they intend to produce an edition and how a new edition differs from an old one. Walsh, a Lynn Democrat, said he wants to rein in unfair business practices. ''The publishers really are being disingenuous. For business sake it is in their interest to allow this to continue for as long as they can," Walsh said. Patricia Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers, said, ''It is true that everything costs a little more, but textbooks cost a whole lot less more than everything else in higher education -- like tuition."

She added that frequent new editions of textbooks are necessary as facts change and that bundling textbooks with other items is more cost-effective than selling items separately. Controlling textbook prices has been a national issue in recent years. A US Government Accountability Office study found last year that textbook prices have increased 6 percent a year since the academic year 1987-88, twice the general rate of inflation.

The average annual cost of textbooks for a student in 2003-04 was $898 at a four-year college and $886 at a two-year college, the study said. Among reasons for the higher prices, the report cited publishers' more frequent issuance of new editions and the practice of bundling features like CD-ROMS with the main texts. Since January 2004, MASSPIRG also has been actively seeking to stem textbook price increases and has created an online spot for selling used texts, Representative Walsh's legislation, provided it gets a thumbs-up from the higher education committee, could go to the floor for a vote this year.

MARKETING HARVARD: Some eyebrows raised at Harvard last week at the sight of a job advertisement for a director of internal communications, a new position. Harvard College, the undergraduate wing, is seeking someone to ''assume leadership of branding efforts for internal communications," and ''create a unified brand for Harvard College across publications and websites." The posting puzzled observers, considering that Harvard has a blockbuster brand and the College is facing mounting annual deficits. John Gates, associate dean for administration and finance, said the goal of the new position actually is to save money by consolidating printing contracts. Gates rejects the notion that part of the reason for the new position was to use marketing to boost Harvard College's notoriously low student-satisfaction scores. But he stressed the importance of ''messaging," a surprising concern for the most sought-after college in the world. ''We are a great college with wonderful opportunities for students. We are student-centered and deeply concerned with the quality of student life. We want all of our messaging to speak to our support of students," Gates said. ''Virtually everything we put out needs to have that message of 'the student.' We can drive it home better."

WILLIAMS PROVOST MOVES ON: The Williams College provost, Catharine Hill, named last week as president-elect of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is set to become part of an impressive streak of Williams economists who have become presidents of elite liberal arts colleges. Stephen Lewis was president of Carleton College from 1987 to 2002. Michael McPherson led Macalester College from 1996 to 2003, and Morton Schapiro has been president of Williams since 2000. All of them held leadership positions at Williams, and McPherson, Schapiro and Hill study the economics of higher education. ''As economists, getting involved in these issues has made some of us want to get involved in the management of the organization," Hill said. But in her case the inspiration went in the opposite direction. She was a development economist until she became provost, when she decided she wanted to better understand her own industry. Hill, 51, known as Cappy, hopes to continue her research on higher education affordability and access after she takes the reins at Vassar this summer.

Comments? Tips? E-mail Campus Insider and Ask The Teacher, a column written by teachers for parents, run on alternate Sundays in the City & Region section.

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