As college bookstores compete, high textbook prices remain an issue

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At the beginning of the school year, Chris Cunha stood outside of the Woodbury Campus Center to hand out coupons for his new employer, the Campus Bookstore. For nearly twenty years, the off-campus store has been the University of Southern Maine bookstore’s direct competitor — most notably, offering lower prices — and last May, it moved closer to the Portland campus. Some say a little too close.

“We got along well, really well, until we moved closer,” said Campus Bookstore owner Wayne Diffin.

The store is now located on the same block of Bedford Street as much of the Portland campus, so it was Cunha’s goal to direct foot traffic to the new location. The junior business major said he had every right to hand out fliers outside of the campus center, but a USM police officer fielded complaints from students about someone obstructing the center’s entrance, so he told Cunha to leave or face the consequences.

“It’s disheartening because they give us grief and we have the student’s best interests at heart with the university,” Cunha said.

Though managers of both bookstores said they have, for the most part, maintained good relations — referring students to the other store if they ran out of a certain book, sharing book lists, and helping each other with theft issues — the incident-prone competition cries of a larger issue for students: the high price of textbooks.

According to a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office, textbook prices rose 186 percent between 1986 and 2004, twice the rate of inflation. The report, titled “Enhanced Offerings Appear To Drive Recent Price Increases,” found that publishers bundling supplemental products with textbooks is the best explanation for this. The publishers said they had a higher demand of educational supplements from professors students are often given no choice but to purchase the newest and most expensive edition of a textbook.

Nicki Piaget, director of the USM Portland bookstore, said she is sympathetic to this plight. Besides selling used books, Piaget said the bookstore also offers an online rental service, along with access codes to digital versions of select textbooks. Starting next fall, all three USM bookstore will begin to offer rental services in-store.

“The best we can do is to offer as many options as we can,” she said.

Diffin of the Campus Bookstore said he understands this issue and tries to assuage it by surveying students about whether they used any of the supplements for particular classes by the end of each semester. If he learns that a certain class doesn’t require the new book’s supplements, he will sell the book used next semester without the additional items that originally forced students to pay a higher price.

“We adapt, we adjust. the publishers play their games, and we’ll try to circumvent it with student surveys,” Diffin said.

The USM bookstore does not follow this practice.

Cunha was quick to point out other ways publishers charge high prices. Some books, he said, are only available in loose leaf paper, which the students must then store in a binder. Despite the book’s cheap production costs, many of these books still sell for over $100, and Diffin said he can’t buy them back because of the paper’s loose nature.

Following the release of the Government Accountability Office’s report, Dr. James V. Koch, an economics professor from Old Dominion University, wrote an analysis on the report’s findings, stating the dynamic in which college professors determine which textbook students will buy “profoundly influences pricing.” In an interview with The Free Press, he said there are many structural issues in the university system that lead to the issue of high textbook prices.

Dr. Koch’s analysis on textbook prices, which was commissioned by the Department of Education’s Advisory Committee On Student Financial Assistance, goes into great length about the number of conditions that have allowed publishers to inflate textbook prices. One section notes a great disconnect between professors and students.

“Repeated surveys say that faculty members don’t know the cost of textbooks,” Koch said. One study he cited, which was done by the Connecticut Board of Governors for Higher Education in 2006, found that 58 percent of the state’s faculty were not aware of prices for textbooks they assigned.

Sometimes, though, professors are aware of the costs. Professor Paul Nakroshis, chair of the USM physics department, said while he thinks textbooks are important for the learning experience, he wishes he didn’t have to assign the newest and most expensive edition of an introductory physics book to his students.

“Frankly speaking, the textbook I was using in the 1980s was just fine,” Nakroshis said. “If it was still around, I would use it.”

According to the Government Accountability Office’s report, publishers revise their textbooks more often in order to meet the demand of professors who want their material up-to-date. The report cites a poll commissioned by the American Association of Publishers that found 80 percent of 1,029 surveyed professors felt this way.

However, this is not always the case. The report also cites a 2005 petition from over 700 math and physics instructors that demanded Thompson Publishing Group to hold back textbook revisions until there were significant new findings in any given field.

“I don’t think it’s necessary for the textbook to include current events,” Nakroshis said. “That’s the job of the professor.”

With the Campus Bookstore’s new strategic location, Diffin said he’s seen more traffic — especially now that students don’t have to cross four lanes of traffic to get there. The move happened last May after Oakhurst Dairy asked Diffin if he wanted to move the store to the University Plaza property, which the dairy company owns. Cunha, who was handing out the fliers, said he’s surprised at how many students didn’t know about the store or its low prices.

“I would say about 75 percent of the people I talk to don’t know about this bookstore,” Cunha said.

But it’s obvious the move was enough to turn some heads. Piaget said USM’s Portland store created new signs on the front and back of Woodbury Campus Center to clarify student confusion about which bookstore belonged to the university.

Diffin said the move has provided one major benefit to the students.

“Their pricing has gotten a lot better for students — a lot better. I feel I’m making them honest,” Diffin said. “It’s always fun. Competition is good.”

 

1 COMMENT

  1. The Campus Bookstore employee was being too aggressive and bothering USM students – that is the only reason he was asked to leave campus. 
    Any rivalry between the two stores is completely friendly and they’ve been referring students to each other for years when books sell out. 

    The USM Bookstore does not have the luxury of ordering ‘cheaper’ versions or sets missing pieces because they must order exactly what the professors have ordered.
    The employees there are hard working and care about USM students very much.  They order what they are supposed to and price it with very little profit.  Sometimes they are cheaper than Campus Bookstore.  There are extra, unseen benefits from buying your books at the USM Bookstore: If you leave school for duty in the armed forces, you can get a refund for your books, same thing if you leave school due to a medical condition, family emergency, or even if you die.  As far as profit goes, it all goes into the USM general fund which helps the whole campus.  They donate to student groups and assist with Orientation and other events.  Also, because the USM store is state owned, they have some pretty tough credit card security laws that they must follow – which others do not. 
    It’s not about pointing fingers about which bookstore is ‘good’ and which one is ‘bad’.  It’s about having options. 

    I just wanted to shed some light on the issue because I feel like the article above is pretty slanted, and trying to make a story where there really isn’t one.

    • I am the student that you refer to as being “too agressive” and “bothering usm students.” If that is the case, I sincerly apologize. That being said, the amount of people that came up to me after they purchased their books and shook my hand, and thanked me profusely was mind-blowing. The students are guarenteed to save money by going to the Campus Bookstore, which is presumably why I get thanked so much, not mentioning the extra 5% off students receive with the flyers I was handing out. Whether the savings be a couple dollars, or 60 dollars on a single book, I strive to help the students in any way I can. Of course, students leaving school for military duties or medical reasons would also get a full refund; why wouldn’t they? The owners’ names can be found on the Alumni walkway, for they have made significant contributions to the University of Southern Maine (including book scholarships).Furthermore, ALL retail stores must comply with strict Federal regulations regarding credit card security compliance, which we strictly adhere to.Case in point, it is all about options for the student to save money on his/her books.-Christopher Cunha Junior at USM

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