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OSPIRG group protests cost of college texts

Students at Southern Oregon University on average spend $452 a year on textbooks. That's only half the national average, but demonstrators at the school on Tuesday said they too often find themselves with no option but to pay exorbitant prices for required reading.

A scan of the SOU bookstore showed texts for Business Law at $261, Accounting at $240 and Art History at $180. Nicole Allen of the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group called such prices "a rip-off by publishers ... that puts the consumer (student) in a very trapped position."

Emphasizing the situation, OSPIRG members paraded in giant "mascot" costumes — one as the mean "Mr. $200 Textbook" and the other as smiling "Textbook Rebel," offering students and faculty petitions backing open source publishing, downloading and printing.

Open source textbooks would be accessible free on the Internet, with authors either donating their work, Allen said, or being paid from value-added sources.

"Hard copy textbooks in the US have gone up at four times the rate of inflation over the last two decades," said Allen, who has helped organize demonstrations at 36 campuses. "The publishers are the target of our campaign. We've gotten 3,000 professors so far to sign statements saying they're willing to use open source textbooks."

Allen lauded SOU's bookstore for recently offering book rentals, in which students can rent a text for 30 to 120 days at a fourth to half the retail price. But she called it "a short-term solution" compared with open source books.

Some textbooks are now for sale by purchasing a password to read them online, said Allen, but the file allows printing of only 10 pages at a time and "self-destructs" after 180 days.

Communications senior Linda Wick said called the cost of textbooks, "a burden."

"We should be using old textbooks, not new, because sometimes you just read two pages in the book," she said. "It's a lot of money down the drain and when you try to return a $150 book, you get $10. ... It's appalling."

SOU bookstore director Tannia Shewman said her shop sells access, via coursesmart.com and vitalsource.com, for students to read books online and "it's sometimes cheaper."

In search of cheap books, students search Amazon and eBay's half.com, she noted, adding that few students are aware of "international books," which are identical to textbooks sold in the United States in English, but are available in India and China for a "tiny fraction of the cost."

The petitions circulated nationwide by the PIRGs ask publishers to lower prices and ask faculties to support affordable options, with open publishing textbooks as the ideal solution.

Shewman said the faculty and her shop are "uniquely sensitive" to helping students find the cheapest options — promoting used books, offering a virtual and physical bulletin board for peer-to-peer sales (with no percentage to the store) and compiling "duplicating packets" with information assembled from many sources.

Shewman, Allen and many students faulted publishers for constantly putting out new editions, many with new CDs, but containing only small amounts of new information. That makes earlier editions obsolete and greatly reduces their resale values.

Use of duplicating packets skirts that expense, said Kristen Johnson, SOU textbook department manager, while paying publishers and authors through "copyright clearing centers," but only for pages students use. Typical fees for such packets may be $5 to $7, said Johnson.

That represents considerable work for teaching staff, said Shewman, noting that faculty members all sign agreements to do their best to use older and cheaper editions for a maximum period of years.

SOU's efforts seem to be paying off, with students' costs at about half of the $900 average yearly cost of textbooks nationwide.

"A lot of universities aren't trying this hard," said Shewman.

Thomas Letchworth, the chapter chairman of OSPIRG at SOU, said paying for books that cost up to $150 can force many students "to choose between books and food."

"Your learning materials shouldn't be a barrier between education and your well-being," Letchworth said.

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