By Steffanie Atkins
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – When Victoria Ficco transferred from Christopher Newport University to Virginia Commonwealth University as a sophomore, she wanted to be prepared before the first day of classes. So Ficco, a mass communications major, logged onto the website of VCU’s bookstore to order textbooks.
She ordered all the books that Barnes & Noble @ VCU said were required for her courses. But on the first day of her economics class, she was surprised to find that the economics text she had purchased was not required.
“I don’t understand why it said required and the teacher goes, ‘Oh, you don’t need it,’” Ficco said.
The textbook had cost Ficco $300, and the bookstore would not accept a return; she couldn’t sell the book back until the end of that fall’s semester. “I was stuck with it. What am I supposed to do with an economics book for this semester?” Ficco said. “So it was a table weight until I could sell it back.”
When she finally did sell the book, she recovered only about $100. “I was really lucky that my dad gave me some money to hold me over,” said Ficco, who graduated in May with a degree in broadcast journalism.
Her experience is disturbingly common: Students at VCU and other institutions of higher education in Virginia often end up buying textbooks they never use, according to a survey by Virginia21, an advocacy group for college students and other young adults.
Last fall, Virginia 21 surveyed over 8,000 college students across Virginia, including more than 300 VCU students. The results:
• About 59 percent of students at VCU said they had purchased textbooks that were unnecessary for their classes.
• More than 90 percent of VCU students said they spent at least $200 on textbooks each semester. Three percent of students reported their textbooks totaled over $700.
Tom Kramer, executive director of Virginia21, blames bookstores and publishers for the rising cost of books.
“It’s unacceptable the rate at how much textbooks have increased in price. It’s unacceptable the practices that go into just issuing new editions every four days,” Kramer said.
He also said poor marketing to students could also be to blame. Each semester, Barnes and Noble @ VCU arranges books on its shelves according to particular classes and section numbers. Under each heading are required books and recommended books.
Kramer said that bookstores might not be clearly distinguishing what’s required from what’s merely recommended – and that could be confusing for some students.
In recent years, Virginia21 has played an important role in trying to reduce textbook expenses. In 2005, the organization persuaded the state General Assembly to pass the Textbook Market Fairness Act.
“A component of that act was to ask professors to make their book list available before class so students had an opportunity to shop around,” Kramer said.
According to the survey, about 60 percent of students statewide stated there was non-compliance with the Textbook Fairness Act; however, the results do not indicate whether students felt the bookstores were not advertising properly or the faculty was not providing the proper information to the bookstore.
VCU emails requests to all instructors, urging them to submit their request for textbooks to Barnes & Noble @ VCU in a timely fashion. For the fall 2013 semester, textbook requests were due on April 5. (Capital News Service asked VCU for a list of professors who had missed the deadline; VCU officials said they had no records containing that information.)
Also as part of its textbook policy, VCU asks professors to use free materials whenever they are available and pertinent to the course: “For their courses, faculty are encouraged to utilize the VCU Libraries’ collection and electronic books, journals, image databases, audio and video materials, and other materials provided through the web by the VCU Libraries for supplemental and core reading in support of classroom work.”
Kramer believes all colleges and universities should move toward providing free books or e-books. “Technology has already answered the question of how can we deliver textbooks more efficiently to students. The industry itself just hasn’t embraced it,” Kramer said.
He said the technology exists, but the problem is agreeing on an e-book format that will work for textbook publishers, colleges and students. With technology changing, Kramer worries that a platform implemented now may be obsolete in only a few years.
“The iPad uses the ePub; the Kindle uses its own [e-reader]. They all use something different,” Kramer said.
Virginia State University in Petersburg has implemented select e-books effective in 2010 in its business school. The open source program was initially implemented for nine classes and by this fall, all class textbooks should be available in digital formats.
The materials at Virginia State are relatively inexpensive at $25 per student per course. According to the school’s website, the first year this program was implemented, students saved more than $200,000.
Ficco agrees that renting or using e-books is the ideal solution to textbook cost issues.
“It saves you so much money. I can’t see a solid reason why you should buy your textbooks anymore,” she said.
Virginia21 and its chapters at colleges around the state plan to investigate the textbook issue in greater detail at the beginning of the fall semester. Kramer said that when students return to school, each chapter will collect data to determine why so many students end up purchasing books that are not required.
The organization will take action if it finds that the problem is in how required and recommended books are displayed in campus bookstores.
“We will have our chapters work on getting pictorial evidence on what’s happening here, and we’ll take it to the bookstore first. But then we’re going to seek legislative changes if the bookstores don’t respond favorably,” Kramer said.
Kramer said the issue is not uncommon among campuses across the state. “But some schools have reported not having this problem at all, and some schools report that indeed they have this problem. I know some schools like George Mason have the problem,” he said.
In the meantime, he said students should do research and find textbooks online for free or in an e-book format to save them money.
“Until a governor or lawmakers decide something like that in a definitive fashion, I think it’s going to be really hard to push the prices down [in the bookstores],” Kramer said.