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updated: 11/14/2012 2:14 PM

Textbook prices affect college affordability, accessibility

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Across the country this fall, many colleges and universities reported a decline in student enrollment.

Pundits and analysts are rushing to explain this new trend, often focusing on the decreasing number of high school graduates, the economy and, perhaps the largest factor, the increasing cost to attend higher education.

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For years now, declining state and federal support has been a major factor in causing the average college tuition to grow at a much higher rate than overall inflation. However, textbook prices, which have also been on an upward track, are another key part of college affordability.

Community colleges represent the best value in higher education with tuition costing an average of $5,550 less than in-state public four-year institutions and more than $25,000 less than private four-year schools, according to the College Board.

While at the forefront of educational accessibility, community colleges are not immune to the challenges of containing student textbook prices. With significantly lower overall tuition costs, for many community college students books can total more than a third of their college expenses.

The College Board reports that students spend an average of $1,168 each year on books and supplies. When you can buy a reliable used car or a new 60-inch HD-TV for less than the cost of a year's textbooks, students question, "Where is my money going?"

According to the National Association of College Stores, nearly 80 percent of textbook costs relate to wholesale expenses of book publishers including author fees, printing, paper and general operating expenses.

Driven by market demand, pressure from the federal government and changing technologies, publishers are beginning to deliver more options to students. College bookstores have long offered used textbooks alongside new ones, with the former averaging $14 less. Now, eTextbooks and rentals of printed books deliver even greater savings and account for nearly 14 percent of all purchases, according to Student Monitor, a student market research firm.

Other strategies employed by colleges to contain textbook costs include limiting the number of required textbooks and utilizing the same edition as long as possible to allow students to sell books back at the end of the semester.

While Waubonsee Community College's enrollment numbers were up this fall, accessibility is one of the college's core values and something we are dedicated to protecting through cost containment strategies. Waubonsee's bookstores at our Sugar Grove Campus, Aurora Campus and online offer both new and used textbooks, new and used rentals, eTextbooks and even a layaway program to make used books available to students who can't afford them before receiving their financial aid disbursement.

Used textbooks make up more than 28 percent of all textbooks sold or rented at the college, and rentals are nearly 11 percent of the total. Although just beginning to catch on, eTextbooks did see a significant jump this fall, and 134 were sold in this format.

None of these options alone are an answer to the overall issue of textbook costs. However, together, they begin to give students options that add up to real savings.

Textbook prices can be a barrier to college access, which is why Waubonsee and thousands of other colleges have focused on the issue. College students should weigh their needs and choose the textbook option that best fits both their budget and their learning style.

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