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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 4, 2004

College students seek deals as text costs rise

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

As a graduate student working on her Ph.D. in linguistics, 27-year-old Meylysa Tseng lives on $550 from her monthly graduate stipend and has to share a one-bedroom apartment with two friends.

University of Hawai'i-Manoa senior Puanani Langi goes for the used books at the campus bookstore. Other ways the 22-year-old stretches her dollar is by buying textbooks online or borrowing them from the library.

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And because she can't always afford to buy them, she has taken to photocopying parts of her most expensive textbooks, or sharing with others in the same situation.

"If it's so important, we'll try to buy it," she said. "But my classes don't always require books. And the ones that do require them, I'm borrowing."

While most Hawai'i students still find shopping for textbooks quick and easy at campus bookstores, others are cruising the Internet for deals on used as well as new books, or working out inventive ways to cut costs. It's all part of stretching modest student dollars.

"It's ridiculous how much money you have to pay, but I sort of understand," says 28-year-old junior Nakoa Ching, a global environmental science major. "The publisher has to make money. The school bookstore has to make money. But the student loses out."

Puanani Langi agrees.

"I've bought online before because it's cheaper," says the 22-year-old Manoa political science senior. "My books can cost over $300 for a semester (from the bookstore). But at Amazon.com you can buy used books for $7 sometimes, but I found a better idea. I borrow them at the library."

Hawai'i students aren't alone in reacting to the price boosts that have seen college texts jump 33 percent in the past five years, compared to 18 percent for other books, according to the National Association of College Stores.

On the national scene, Oregon Rep. David Wu, a Democrat, introduced a bill last fall asking the General Accounting Office to investigate pricing and production policies of the nation's leading college textbook publishers. Both he and New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer are outraged at high prices for college textbooks — pointing out that the same textbooks are often sold at half the price outside the United States.

The situation has largely been complicated by the growing battle between publishers and used-book marketers. Publishers set prices, release new editions of expensive texts frequently and often "bundle" them with CD roms and workbooks that boost the price but may be unnecessary, say college bookstore managers.

Puanani Langi, a political science senior at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, found one of the texts she needed from the graduate library. The five-time renewal option lets her have the book for a semester.

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"If it's being recycled three and four times, they get none of that," said UH bookstore system director Randy Tanaka, of textbook publishers. "So one of the tactics is more aggressive selling of new books and packaging proprietary materials with the book. We see that more and more, and more 'bundled' packages coming so they become the only source of that particular bundle."

For their part, publishers are facing the booming Internet book sellers' traffic, as well as the used-book market. Just off the Manoa campus, Rainbow and Cheapo bookstores are dedicated to luring cash-strapped students. Cheapo assistant manager Carrie Hiyane says it doesn't carry texts, but it does have a range of literature books, many used. And it will buy books back.

"When students come down looking for books for class, while we're buying we'll keep a lookout," Hiyane said. "And we do book searches for them."

But book-publishing economics don't concern 19-year-old second-semester freshman Alex Wolff as much as cut-rate economics do. This semester his book bill came in $70 lower than the first semester after he and his father roamed the Internet to buy four or five books for around $230.

"The first semester they cost over $300 (at the bookstore)," Wolff said. "Last time I bought science books for around $80 each."

A New York state survey in the fall by Schumer found university freshmen and sophomores paying an average of $922 for their books, making them about $100 each. Prices are comparable in other parts of the country, too.

That's approximately what 20-year-old Manoa junior Theresa Sasso, studying international business and marketing, paid at the UH campus bookstore this semester. Five books cost $600.

Her friend, Erika Hollweg, a 22-year-old dietetics major, paid $500 for six, but she was philosophical. "We're lazy. We need convenience and we need it now," Hollweg said. "We can't wait (for shipping). And they charge."

UH bookstore manager Tanaka is counting on being the easy choice. But he's also trying to offer extra service that others may not have. When class-size estimates are off and books aren't available, the bookstore tries to help, including making photocopies of the first chapters available, he said, "just to be sure the instructor is able to maintain continuity."

And he tries not to pass on emergency air freight charges.

UH bookstore prices start with the publisher's price, Tanaka said, and include a "standard" markup of 24 percent. Out of that come shipping costs, salaries, expenses and a profit that's often zero — or 4 percent at the most.

"The shipping costs kill us coming and going. Maybe 10, 15 percent of our books are held over (in storage) ... That's the quandary we're caught in. We have to debate if it's going to be used the following semester or more feasible to return it."

Then there's competition from big-box stores such as Costco and Wal-Mart, controls on distribution by publishers, and publishers' sales reps visiting campuses to seduce teaching staff with glittery, new, expensive editions.

UH-Manoa mathematics professor Leslie Wilson said the latest editions are indeed more student-friendly, with more pictures, boxed formulas and problems in the back, but most instructors would be happy to keep the old, less expensive ones but they're not available.

"The books now cost a fortune," Wilson said. "They keep making new editions and you have to get the newest edition. For the calculus books, it seems like it's every couple of years."

New York Sen. Schumer, meanwhile, has proposed making up to $1,000 of textbook costs tax deductible to help lower the overall cost of higher education. Among other things, he has also proposed guaranteeing textbooks are available in campus libraries, with enough copies so students who need them can complete their reading.

That would find approval with Langi, the political science senior.

On the table before her is a copy of "Daughters of the Pacific," a text she's reading for an ethnic studies course on oppressed women. She managed to check out the only copy from the graduate library — a four-week initial check-out with the option of five renewals — perfect for a semester course.

Chances are she'll return it before the end of the semester, though, because she only needs three of the essays for her course.

While students complain about high prices of new books, they also gripe about low prices at the bookstore when they sell back barely used books at the end of the semester. "You don't even get half of what you paid for it," said Hollweg, the dietetics major. "My microbiology book was $126 and I'll probably get $40 back."

Meanwhile, Ching, the global environmental science major, tries to find inexpensive books by looking through notices on campus bulletin boards, or checking with the department knowing that many students sell used books internally to fellow students in their own field.

But he also notes that a more important concern for him than the cost is what he's going to learn from that book and, of course, whether he's going to pass the class.

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8013.