Maryland (as well as about 20 other states) and the federal government are considering laws to reduce the price of notoriously expensive college textbooks.
The problem is a classic case of market failure: Textbook makers compete in terms of quality — all else being equal, a professor will pick a good book over a bad one — but not price. Professors don’t pay for the books, so few consider the cost. Students can’t buy the cheaper alternatives, because they’ll be tested on the assigned book’s material.
With that in mind, I’m not sure the federal bill will do that much to help:
The bill, introduced in November 2007, would amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 by adding several sections that would make the cost of higher education more transparent to students and their families.
One provision of the nearly 800-page-long bill would require textbook publishers to fully disclose to colleges the prices of textbooks, as well as information about how revised editions differ from previous ones. Publishers would also have to allow bundled textbooks and materials to be purchased separately.
These measures can’t hurt, but the core problem remains. “[S]tudents and their families” already know they’ll get ripped off on textbooks, and professors still bear no burden for selecting overpriced books. I graduated in 2006, and I can’t remember “bundled textbooks and materials” being a big problem (however, a GAO study found that textbook costs rose at twice the rate of inflation between 1986 and 2004, with CDs and other supplemental materials contributing to the increase).
The Maryland bill looks more promising, since it would bar public-university employees from taking benefits in exchange for assigning a particular book. Critics are also going after “agreements between bookstores and universities under which, lawmakers allege, both parties profit from the sales of books students are required to buy for their classes.”
One law worth considering would mandate that book costs be factored into tuition (only at public universities, of course — the government has no business telling the private ones what to do). To get texts from the school bookstore, students would merely need to provide proof that they’d enrolled in the classes requiring them. This would create the ultimate transparency and, since colleges would get to keep any money they saved, they’d have a reason to keep textbook costs down.