Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Last spring, students voted for a $10,000 grant to address high textbook prices as one of the ways to spend the $90,000 in rollover from the Student Activities Account. On Monday, a forum was held in Science Center 199 to discuss potential ways to spend this money effectively.
The forum was moderated by Student Council President Rachel Bell ‘10, Student Financial Policy Representative Daniel Symonds ’11, and Kate Aizpuru ’10, one of the organizers of Class Awareness Month. Both students and professors participated, and Financial Aid Office Director Laura Talbot, College librarian Peggy Seiden, and bookstore director Kathy Grace also contributed extensively.
Bell discussed the three main ways to deal with the money that had been allocated. The first was to have a drive where students donate their used textbooks, which would then be given to other students or sold at a very low price, with the inventory possibly being broadcast through the Gazette. This option’s appeal, Bell said, came from the fact that it had “no cost,” and that small profits from the books could actually be used to help replenish the $10,000 fund.
The second option would spend the money on increasing reserve books in the libraries, since that would last longer than simply subsidizing $10,000 worth of textbooks to individuals. The final option involved the copying of material from textbooks, which Bell admitted had was of somewhat uncertain legality.
To help come up with further solutions, the panelists began to talk about the nature of the textbook industry and how textbooks function at Swarthmore. Talbot noted that the College already subsidizes textbooks for a few students. If a student has a financial aid package that offers them more compensation than the full bill of admission, they receive $1,150 in refunds for supplies and textbooks, a figure derived from the estimated cost of buying all new textbooks. Talbot said that 155 students received this sort of refund for a total of $192,000.
Scott Gilbert, a professor in the Biology department who is also an author of three textbooks, helped explain why new textbook prices are so high. “The thing about keeping book prices down,” Gilbert explained, “is that people who buy textbooks in the first semester of their release have to subsidize all of the later used sales.” Essentially, after the initial sale of a book, no one involved in the construction of the textbook makes any money from subsequent buybacks or sales (which are especially prevalent in the textbook market). As such, the logic is that initial prices must be high to properly compensate textbook writers.
Kathy Grace of the bookstore helped further explain current textbook prices. The bookstore marks up textbook prices around 20% while the industry standard is around 25%. Despite these markups, “the Course Materials section of the bookstore is operating at a loss right now,” Grace said.
One possibility to help lower textbook prices offered was to have faculty members declare textbooks for their courses earlier, so the bookstore could spend more time finding used books to sell. Biology Professor Elizabeth Vallen said that in designing courses, faculty members often become very busy and that textbook designation was often a low priority, so this was not necessarily a good solution.
New editions of textbooks compound the problem, so any books that the College buys become outdated rather quickly. Librarian Peggy Seiden said that possible solutions to this particular problem, such as putting textbook-based problem sets on Blackboard, were not necessarily legally sound. As a potential solution, Seiden suggested spending money on the copyrights to textbooks.
Ultimately, no consensus was reached on how to best spend the money, though the forum did help shed light concerning which plans may or may not be effective uses of the $10,000 grant.