Just as parents try to get over the shock of this year's college tuition rates, the bills start piling up for peripherals - everything from desk lamps to laundry. So here's a question regarding one of higher education's most exorbitant non-tuition items: Why does a collegiate paperback such as "Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life" cost $133.95?

Cartoon by Jimmy Margulies - The Record (click to reprint)

Cartoon by Jimmy Margulies - The Record (click to reprint)

The book, subtitled "Introductory Readings in Ethics," is in its eighth edition and remains a favorite in college ethics classes. It's a 544-page paperback, certainly a hefty tome, but vastly overpriced for all markets except college, where predatory publishers, careless instructors and lax administrators combine to deliver a wallop to the wallet.

College book prices, which can easily exceed $1,000 a year, have been climbing at roughly six percent annually. One response - made easier by the Internet - is the burgeoning market for used books. Used books now account for about $2 billion of the $5 billion total spent by American college students. But, since publishers don't get any of the revenue from used books, their natural response is to raise prices on new books even higher.

In 2008 Congress took a look at this problem, and the result was the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which finally went into effect in time for the fall '10 semester. The law requires publishers to offer books and other materials, such as CDs, separately rather than in costly bundles. And, most importantly, colleges are now required to publish the cost of books in course catalogs.

In its discovery process, Congress identified several factors that inflate college book prices. The most damaging is that the primary choosers of books are not the primary users; that is, teachers usually select the books, but students pay for them.

Congress also noted that college books tend to be "price inelastic," meaning that buyers do not meet hikes in price with typical resistance. This is understandable, since students are generally hostage to professors' selections. Interestingly, the condition is not as profound in Europe, where many schools demand lower prices from publishers. Congress learned that one popular economics text cost $126 in the U.S., while the same book was priced at $76 in Great Britain.

Since lawmakers were gracious enough to give schools two years to get ready for the new regulations, I decided to check a few dozen colleges and universities to see if book prices were now included in course catalogs. Compliance is spotty at best. Here's a particularly galling notice on Princeton University's website: "The system is expected to be generally available to all faculty for input of course reading lists in the spring of 2011, with plans to make complete course reading information available to students by the fall of 2011."

There were no signs of book lists or prices at many schools including Stanford, Boise State, Temple, Florida State and the University of Chicago. At Georgetown University, the student newspaper, The Hoya, reported last week that only 52 percent of courses in the school catalog had books listed for the fall semester.

A few schools, most notably Arizona State, have not only complied with the law, but created handy online features to allow comparisons. Unfortunately, ASU's data shed light on another facet of the problem. It seems that students taking the very same course, such as Intro to Sociology, but from different teachers, are finding that books cost $150 in one class, but under $50 in another.

Technology may soon give students an edge that even Congress was not able to provide. Inside Higher Ed reports that several schools are turning to e-books, with student costs expected to drop by as much as 50 percent. The publication says for-profit colleges have been in the vanguard of e-text use, while traditional nonprofit institutions have been slow, in large part because faculty control of the book process remains "sacred."

A good first step in controlling college book costs would be for schools to immediately comply with the law. Another would be for administrators to insist that teachers select books early, and wisely, and avoid unnecessary changes from one edition of a book to the next - which reduces or eliminates the resale market.

And the future can't arrive quickly enough when it comes to e-books on campus. Many of us retain our love for printed volumes for recreational reading, but the exorbitant cost of college books makes a digital fix already, as they say in the library, overdue.


Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker. He may be reached at www.CandidCamera.com.

©2010 Peter Funt. This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. newspaper syndicate. For info call Cari Dawson Bartley at 800 696 7561 or e-mail [email protected].

Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker. He's also the long-time host of "Candid Camera." A collection of his DVDs is available at www.candidcamera.com.