PIRGs fight for cheaper books

Posted by Mariel Kennedy

According to College Board, the national average cost of textbooks at a four-year public college is $1,137.

The Student Public Interest Research Groups — self-described as "a national network of non-profit, non-partisan student advocacy groups — respond to the high and rising costs of textbooks with the creation of the Make Textbooks Affordable Junior Advocate Program. According to PIRGs' website, the program intends to "train and empower students to take action on campuses across the country."

PIRGs explains the program as "the first student-led marketing campaign of its kind and represents a major turning point in the movement for more affordable textbooks."

In addition to the amount of money the average student spends on textbooks, the site claims that prices have risen to more than quadruple the rate of inflation and that "publishers release frequent new editions to limit used books, conceal price information from faculty and bundle textbooks with ‘bells and whistles' to inflate costs."

To decrease the amount spent by students, PIRGs are pushing for a new form of textbooks called "open textbooks."

PIRGs define open textbooks as "college texts offered online under a license that allows free digital access and low-cost printing." Open textbooks are unlike "conventional e-books," as they can be found online for free and hard copies can be accessed at a rate of about $20 to $40.

Open textbooks are gaining popularity across the country. PIRGs state that making the switch to open textbooks allows professors to "save their students up to $20,000 per class" and "have the potential to reduce costs by up to 80 percent."

Despite that more than a thousand classes in the U.S. have made the switch to open textbooks, PIRGs state that a majority of professors have never heard of the books. Thus, the Junior Advocate Program was created.

Junior Advocates are currently creating and presenting campaigns that market open textbooks on their campuses. Methods used are similar to those used by big-budget publishing companies and include "one-on-one conversations, group presentations, online promotion and media outreach."

Rather than focusing on the availability of used books and book rentals, the Junior Advocate Program works "to change the dynamics of the textbooks market by challenging traditional publishing models."

Joanne Schwartzberg '12 is currently studying off-campus in the Washington Semester Program through American University. Part of her program is an internship, which she is fulfilling by becoming a Junior Advocate.

"Open source textbooks are important because they are the wave of the future. Everything is going to become digitalized eventually, including textbooks, and we should jump on the bandwagon now," Schwartzberg said.

PIRGs' main goal is not just to save students money, but to also send the message to publishing companies that "professors will stop using books if they get too expensive… [leaving companies] no choice but to lower their prices and make textbooks affordable."

Schwartzberg also feels that open textbooks will ultimately benefit the country. "Textbook affordability is a large way we can make higher education in general affordable for more people … It will lead to more success and a stronger workforce for America and who can argue with that," Schwartzberg said.

After a spring break trip to New York City to talk to faculty members at New York University and Columbia University, Schwartzberg will be bringing the message of open textbooks to the Skidmore campus.

"We're already paying $50,000 a year to go here; textbooks should not be what break our banks," Schwartzberg said.

PIRGs are campaigning for sustainable campuses, affordable higher education, truth about credit and more.

They also offer many internships and volunteer opportunities to interested students.

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