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Web not yet the answer to college-text costs

As a freshman at Temple University, Gian Hunjan shelled out $500 per semester for textbooks at the bookstore, all new.

Vinny Vella, a LaSalle University sophomore, holds two text books he's rented this semester. ( Ed Hille / Staff Photographer )
Vinny Vella, a LaSalle University sophomore, holds two text books he's rented this semester. ( Ed Hille / Staff Photographer )Read more

As a freshman at Temple University, Gian Hunjan shelled out $500 per semester for textbooks at the bookstore, all new.

Now a senior, he buys most of his books used, or forgoes them altogether and looks up material on the Internet instead.

He wishes more books were available online.

"I think every student would, especially if they're cheaper," the finance major from North Jersey said.

But most students still prefer print to digital, and even if they didn't, textbook publishers and authors have made very few titles available online.

At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, only 31 of the 1,578 course titles registered with the bookstore were available digitally, eight of which were sold by the bookstore.

But that could change with the advent of the tablet-style Apple iPad and with students throughout the region buckling under heavy book expenses on top of pricey tuition. A small but growing number already are buying digital texts, many of which are half the price of books.

Experts expect students to have more choices as campuses, professors, and companies look for new ways to make texts available and more affordable.

Students spend more than $1,100 a year on textbooks and supplies, says the College Board.

Textbook publishers and book authors are grappling to find a fair method that makes use of technology and satisfies students.

"It's like the Wild West. Everybody's trying something new," said Steven Bell, associate university librarian at Temple. "What's the pricing model that's going to work?"

Don't look yet for a groundswell toward digital books. According to the national Student Public Interest Research Groups, 75 percent of students still prefer print.

"The critical mass just isn't there yet," said Bell, who added that it's also not clear whether students will buy the e-reading devices to make digital books more palatable.

CourseSmart, founded three years ago as a joint venture of five large college textbook publishers, hopes to change that. It offers about 9,000 book titles online at about 50 percent of the cost of print, said Frank Lyman, executive vice president.

Sales grew 400 percent from 2008 to 2009, he said, declining to release exact numbers.

"It is in the hundreds of thousands of students using it - not yet millions," he said.

He expects Apple's iPad to increase that interest.

"It will capture the imagination of yet another group of students who will ask, 'Why aren't I using digital textbooks?' " he said.

Don't count on La Salle University sophomore Vinny Vella. He prefers holding a book in his hands.

"I really don't enjoy reading on the screen for too long. It hurts my eyes," said Vella, of Kresgeville, Monroe County.

The communication major began renting books this semester as an alternative. He rented a textbook for his art class, priced new at nearly $200, for less than $60.

At Princeton University, students this school year were given Kindle devices loaded with all material for three courses in a pilot project to lower paper usage. Some students found the devices difficult to use and slow, according to the Princetonian, the student newspaper.

Nicole Allen, textbook advocate for the Student Public Interest Research Groups, believes textbooks should be less expensive for students than the price CourseSmart offers. A 50 percent cut is barely below the cost of rentals or used books, she said. Her group is advocating for professors at campuses nationally to use "open textbooks" - free digital versions - whenever possible.

"We just want to make sure that open textbooks are on the table," she said.

At Rutgers University's New Brunswick campus, students last year got about a dozen professors to sign a pledge to use more affordable book sources, said Lindsey Swoap, 19, a sophomore from southern Virginia.

The American Federation of Teachers passed a resolution in 2009 in support of open textbooks.

Allen's group pushed for legislation that will take effect July 1 requiring schools that receive federal funding to give students advance notice on books needed for the semester so they have time to shop around. It also prohibits book companies from "bundling" textbooks and supplemental materials, and requires price disclosure to faculty.

Professors say they hear concerns from students frequently about cost and are interested in helping address the issue.

Jean-Claude Bradley, a Drexel University chemistry professor and E-learning coordinator for the College of Arts and Sciences, said he avoids requiring a textbook when possible and makes as much material as possible - including tutorials, recorded lectures, readings, and games - available for free online.

Authors are sympathetic, too.

"I have no desire to cost these kids one cent more than they need to pay," said Kate Nelson, an instructor in Temple's Fox School of Business, who recently completed the fifth edition of a textbook on business ethics. "I am for whatever gets knowledge out there as cheaply as we can get it out there."

At Temple, a committee of professors is looking at ways to make the best curriculum materials available at the most reasonable cost. Several professors are planning a pilot project for open textbooks produced by the staff and available for updating.

Meanwhile, the rental market is growing.

Students can rent books for varying prices, depending on the length of the rentals. They can highlight and write in the books, which some renters actually like because someone else has already told them the most important elements, said Michael Geller, vice president of marketing for

The California company offers more than three million titles.

"If the textbook is priced over $25, there's a 96 percent chance we have it," he said.

Among its customers in January were students at 572 schools in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey - Rutgers, Penn, Temple, and Penn State among the largest users, Geller said.

Other students use older methods.

Morgan Zalot, 20, a Temple senior from Northeast Philadelphia, purchases her texts from Amazon, then sells them back. Last semester, she put out $150 to $200 for books and got about $100 back.

"I usually don't stick to the edition that the professors ask for," she said. "A lot of times they ask for the most recent, but you really don't need the most recent."

For a history course, she looked up material online instead of buying the book: "History never changes."