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Higher ed tries to address changing landscape of costly textbooks

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For $1,000, you can buy five 16GB iPhone 6s, four high tech Fitbits, or pay about two month’s rent for a one-bedroom apartment, depending on the location in Grand Forks.

It’s also what a UND student will pay on average each year for textbooks, and since April 1, 2009, UND has made almost $5.15 million from those sales.

“You don't really think about it,” UND Student Body President Matt Kopp said. “At first you think about it being rolled into the cost of your education, but you pay tuition and it's like you have a few hundred dollars more you have to spend on books."

UND's online Net Price Estimator puts books for one student at $500 per semester, or $1,000 annually.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System shows that price has stayed static since 2012. Prior to that, “books and supplies” at UND cost an average of $800 annually going back to 2008.

The current average at UND is lower than the national average of $1,200 for four-year public universities, as calculated by The College Board, a New York based nonprofit advocacy group that publishes higher education data for students.

Kopp said, in his personal experience, more expensive books often included computer software or lab information, along with the traditional paper book. He said the more expensive copies ran him more than a hundred dollars, so he, along with many of his peers, have turned to online bookstores and rentals to find a better deal.

“I think the trend right now is everything is moving online,” Kopp said. “Unless the bookstores adapt, I think students are going to move away from the traditional model.

The average price of a new textbook increased from $57 in 2007 to $79 in 2013, according to the National Association of College Stores. Many like the one at UND, which is owned and operated by Follett, offer students the option to rent certain books or will buy back some for a reduced price.

How it works

UND’s bookstore has been owned and operated by Follett since 2009, and UND spokesman Peter Johnson said the contract stipulates they must charge industry standards for textbooks. Follett is a private company and is therefore not required by open records laws to provide profit data. But numbers provided by UND show the university has made $5,146,500 commission from books sold by Follett.

The university receives 12.4 percent of gross sales up to $6 million dollars, which Johnson said is what happens most commonly. If that percentage of gross sales tops $6 million, UND receives 13.4 percent of sales. If it tops $10 million, the school gets 14.4 percent.

Since Follett signed on with the university in April 2009, UND has made an average of $845,224 annually from those sales.

Follett also funds a $10,000 scholarship annually, Johnson said.

UND Financial Wellness Office program coordinator Renee Nilsen said students often are surprised by how much books and supplies can cost, but her office tries to help students budget appropriately.

“If they're here talking about those issues, we talk about a holistic budget and incorporate that potential cost into the next semester,” she said.

Students can use financial aid dollars on textbooks, though Nilsen said they’re generally lower on the list of student concerns.

“The top thing is tuition and fee bills because that's right in front of them,” she said. “The textbooks are more of a side or surprise amount owed and it depends on what field of study, too.”

Kopp said he would like professors to explain or guarantee the books he is told to buy will be useful in the class.

“Sometimes you can't even rent them and then they don't use them,” he said. “They lecture off of a PowerPoint slide and you'd be just as well off going to class without it.”

Looking for other options

Students now have the option to look for better deals online, but on Tuesday, UND sophomore Keith Krawza was shopping at the UND bookstore.

He immediately gave a thumbs down at the mention of their price because he had previously purchased two or three books that were about $200 each. On Tuesday, Krawza was buying  “Electric Circuits,” which was on the shelf for $260 new or $195 used.

“I don’t have the cash to go out and buy books now, but I need books now, so I have to use anticipated financial aid,” he said. “It’s kind of a stinker.”

At first glance, UND’s bookstore isn’t the only local option, as Dakota Textbook Co. also sells books on 42nd Avenue, but according to its website, it also is owned by Follett.

“Electric Circuits,” by Susan A. Riedel and James Nilsson, is available for purchase there for $245.75 new, $184.50 used. A new copy could be rented there for $159.74 and a used one for $110.59.

That same book is available at Amazon.com and costs $190.05 to buy new and $181.90 to buy used.

Chegg.com, another online textbook retailer, sells it for $178.49 and rents it out for $100.49.

Krawza said he’d prefer to shop online but in the future will try to save “a solid $500” for his textbook expenses.

“It’s really lame,” he said

For free?

In October, the State Board of Higher Education included using open textbooks in its five-year strategic plan, following the Washington State college system, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California State University system, all of which have free online libraries of course materials.

Tanya Spilovoy, the director of distance education and state authorization for the North Dakota University System, has been pushing for this use of vetted electronic versions of textbooks, online study material and videos, all available for free.

The initiative is optional for instructors and doesn’t save the institution any money but has the potential to be very beneficial for the wallets of students.

“That, to me, is what's really important," Spilovoy said.

At UND, Provost Thomas DiLorenzo said he wants to start a pilot program that would give instructors time and resources should they sign on to use freely available class material and textbooks.

“One idea is to provide faculty members with some relief time or time to work on this in some way,” he said. “They come together and plan for what we might do as a campus as well as plan for what they might personally do in courses they're teaching in the future.”

There aren’t any plans set in stone yet, but DiLorenzo also is looking at grant money to get faculty the resources they need to train with and develop open educational resources.

“For a little bit of an investment, it could be saving students hundreds of dollars a semester. ... If you multiply that by the number of students taking a course, you're showing huge savings at a university,” he said.

The Student Public Interest Research Group, a Boston-based nonprofit advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader, published a fall 2015 report advocating for open educational resources as the answer to the rising cost of textbooks.

At least two Lake Region State College professors have gotten involved, though Spilovoy said she has come to realize there are a lot of instructors who have been doing things of this nature for some time.

“But we're the only system that is working on doing a statewide initiative,” Spilovoy said.

DiLorenzo said he thought UND faculty would buy into the idea because the Council of College Faculties previously passed a resolution in support of using open textbooks.

“If we can help reduce cost for students in some way, I think you'll find they're interested," he said.

NDUS has partnered with the University of Minnesota to use a free online library as well as the Open Textbook Network, which allows users to connect and learn from each other through conferences and online.

This spring, the state ultimately appropriated $110,000 to the open educational resource initiative to be spent over the biennium. As a start, Spilovoy hopes to get three instructors from each of the 11 NDUS institutions on board.

“Once we’ve got three per campus, you take three multiplied by five classes multiplied by something like 17 students, and that’s actually a lot of savings,” she said.

This will kick off Oct. 6 and 7 at Valley City State University, where training will begin.

"This is still sort of a new network and sort of a new idea, so we're still in the beginning stages of how this will go,” Spilovoy said.

By the numbers

FY2009* -- $75,157

FY2010 -- $852,950

FY2011 -- $872,535

FY2012 -- $898,531

FY2013 -- $873,152

FY2014 -- $784,944

FY2015 -- $789,230

Source: University of North Dakota

*FY2009 covers April 1, 2009, to June 30, 2009

Anna Burleson

Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact her with story ideas or tips by phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. Examples of her work can be accessed here.

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