High cost of textbooks serves as barrier to education 

click to enlarge SF State junior Paul Murre recently spent $127 on books for just two of his four courses. “We’re in crisis mode,” he said. - MIKE KOOZMIN/SPECIAL TO THE EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/Special to The Examiner
  • SF State junior Paul Murre recently spent $127 on books for just two of his four courses. “We’re in crisis mode,” he said.

The campus bookstore at San Francisco State University was bustling last week. A long line snaked through the aisles, as students waited to pay for this semester’s books. Junior Gloria Keane guessed that her tally for five classes would be $600.

“It gets worse every year,” said Keane, who works a full-time job to pay for school. “You have to push every limit you have to get these books. And it’s not an option, you have to find a way to do it.”

The average amount that college students spend on textbooks has soared from about $900 to almost $1,300 per year in just the past three years, according to the 20 Million Minds Foundation, which aims to reduce the cost of textbooks.

“Not every grant or loan will cover books,” said former state Sen. Dean Florez, the organization’s founder. “That’s a barrier to many students.”

State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg thinks he has a solution. The Sacramento Democrat plans to introduce a bill appropriating $25 million to fund the development of open-source digital textbooks for 50 of the most common courses at the state’s three public college systems.

“We are way down the road in terms of technology, yet we are still using old-fashioned hardback textbooks for all of our college courses,” Steinberg said. “Legislators, but more importantly the people we represent, have been very frustrated.”

While “open-source” might bring to mind untamed websites like Wikipedia, Barbara Illowsky, a statistics professor at De Anza College in Cupertino and the co-author of one such book, said they can be just as reliable and up-to-date as the latest edition of a commercially produced text.

“I truly believe in the open-source movement,” she said. “If tuition keeps going up and books cost more than $1,000 a year, students can’t afford to go to school.”

Illowsky’s peer-reviewed text, Collaborative Statistics, is available for free in digital form. Students can order printed and bound copies for $20, far less than the price of similar statistics textbooks, which can exceed $200.

Collaborative Statistics is being used in about half the statistics classes at City College of San Francisco. Math department Chairman Dennis Pointkowski said used books are not always an option, as publishers frequently issue new editions that make older copies obsolete.

“They make cosmetic changes and pull the old edition,” he said.

The open-source book, however, can be modified to fit the needs of a particular professor, and the digital files are easily updated.

While many professors are enthusiastic about Steinberg’s bill, some fear state encroachment on teachers’ freedom to choose the books best for them and their students.

“Faculty have to be able to make their own decisions,” said Karen Saginor, a City College librarian and the president of the Academic Senate.

But SF State junior Paul Murre said students are too desperate for relief to worry about that.

“We’re taking a lot of cuts in our general course offerings and experiencing a burden in increased tuition,” said Murre, who recently spent $127 on books for just two of his four courses. “We’re in crisis mode.”

Murre, president of his campus College Democrats chapter and a vice president of the statewide Young Democrats, said the group will lobby hard for Steinberg’s bill and push faculty to adopt the open-source books.


The high cost of textbooks

Prices for a few freshman-level textbooks at San Francisco State University’s campus bookstore.

Course: Introduction to Financial Accounting
Book “Financial Accounting”
Price: $248

Course: Human Biology
Book: “Biology of Humans”
Price: $163

Course: Survey of Chemistry
Book: “Essentials of General Organic Biochememistry”
Price: $121.50

Course: Sociological Perspectives
Book: “Mapping the Social Landscape”
Price: $72.50

Source: Examiner reporting

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