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SOU students combat the high price of textbooks

Thanks to the Internet and other digital technology, Southern Oregon University students are finding ways around the "outrageous" cost of new textbooks, including used books on Amazon, rental book sites, Google Books and even PDFs that get passed along.

"I hate buying textbooks," says health and physical education senior Kellie Pertl, after paying $455 for an anatomy book. "It's awful. I can usually find a book on Google Books. It sucks to read a book on screen, but it doesn't suck as bad as dropping a hundred bucks on a book."

Her comments come after release of an Oregon Public Interest Research Group study showing many students and even faculty are finding ways over the textbook moat, with teachers writing their own "open textbooks," free online, with hard copy optional. Such a process saves students an average of $100 per course, notes OSPIRG.

"One teacher of ours refused to make us buy any textbook and was able to get us any book legally," says Pertl, who declined to name the professor.

Amazon is hugely popular with students — and they can sign up for discount rates.

Elementary education senior Marissa Santos reports buying an early-education textbook on Amazon for one cent, with free shipping for students. She also surfs cheap texts on Chegg.

"Generally, Amazon charges about one-third of what the SOU bookstore does," she adds, noting she appreciated the open text of original material written by her professors, Younghee Kim and William Greene, with parts put on PDF.

"I downloaded it and printed it out, chapter by chapter, as we needed it," she says.

Greene says he tries to get older editions of texts if there's no significant new material in new editions, and the SOU bookstore supports that strategy and finds the books, making them closer to $30 than $130.

If a book costs more than $100, the SOU library and bookstore collaborate on getting a copy on two-hour reserve, in a program called TextShare.

The library is trying to get teachers to write open textbooks and use OpenStax College, a free, peer-reviewed, nonprofit collection of Rice University, written by faculty anywhere, most of it now for basic, required courses, says Mary Jane Cedar Face, SOU collection development librarian. They are e-books or PDF.

SOU is supporting faculty in contributing to OpenStax.

The study of Oregon universities by the OSPIRG Foundation and OSPIRG Students shows 65 percent of student consumers have opted out of buying a college textbook because of high cost, and nearly half say book costs can dictate whether they take a course.

The cost of books and supplies was $1,200 a student this year, according to the College Board. That's 14 percent of tuition at a four-year, public college and 39 percent of tuition at a community college, says OSPIRG.

"It's kind of hard to squeeze by when you're shelling out $100 for a thin book," says music performance junior Talon Smith. "Sometimes you can find the PDF or (affordable) e-book and download it to iPad. ... I almost took German instead of Spanish because of the cost of the book."Note: Name in photo caption has been corrected.

You can download the iBook app free from App Store and find most textbooks in the $30 to $50 range, well below campus prices, says Smith.

Communications senior Alex Rudd inspects texts at the bookstore, and if they're anthologies of articles in the field, she figures she can find the original online or in the huge databases at the SOU library.

"I prefer Amazon," says Rudd. "I can sell them back at a decent price. I find renting books slightly cheaper than buying them."

You might think students could recoup hefty book costs when classes are done, but if the class isn't slated for the upcoming term or the text has been updated in a revised edition or accompanying CD, Santos says, there won't be any buyback, so students unload them at significant loss, on Amazon or eBay.

Writing senior Marcus Dottola, who says he buys texts from the bookstore, with a few from Amazon, believes high book prices stem "not from greed but from the abundance of government aid to students, which inflates prices."

Over the past decade, says OSPIRG, college textbook prices have gone up 82 percent — three times the rate of inflation — making them one of the biggest out-of-pocket expenses for students and families.

Book costs have risen more slowly in the past five years, says OSPIRG, because of competition from rental and used-book options.

"Despite the growth of used-book markets, rental programs and e-textbooks, student consumers are still captive to the high prices of the traditional market," said OSPIRG's Evan Preston, in a statement.

"We know that students can work together with campuses and other policy-makers to give students a real alternative to traditional textbooks. Our leaders can ease the burden of high textbook prices by investing in open textbooks."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Student Alex Rudd expresses her opinion on the increased prices of textbooks Tuesday in SOU's Stevenson Union. - Julia Moore