New federal law mandates disclosure of textbook information, including pricing

A new federal law mandating greater transparency in the sale and pricing oftextbooks will take effect July 1.

As a provision of the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA), textbookpublishers will now be required to provide detailed information in writing tofaculty selecting course materials. Publishers must provide the price of thetextbook, copyright dates of the three previous editions, a description ofcontent changes, whether the text is available in other formats and the pricefor those formats, as well as the prices of bundled and unbundled textbooks, ortextbooks sold as a set, according to a letterby Vincent Sampson, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Planning, andInnovation at the Office of Postsecondary Education, analyzing the HEOAchanges.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, saidthat the new information that will be available can help student journalistswrite about textbook prices.

“Once the pricing information is in the hands of college employees, then ata public institution you ought to be able to use open records law to get accessto it,” LoMonte said. ” If there’s one thing that students universally complainabout, at every level of institution, it’s the cost oftextbooks. So publicizing pricing information is avaluable public service that the student media can provide.”

The law states that a university must disclose online the InternationalStandard Book Number (ISBN) or the author, title, publisher and copyright dateas well as the retail price. It also encourages schools to disclose informationabout renting textbooks, purchasing used textbooks, using buy-back programs andfinding “alternative content delivery programs.”

Nicole Allen, textbooks advocate for Student Public Interest ResearchGroups, which organizes college students to help solve public interest problems,said that the transparency around textbook prices is complicated.

“We look at HEOA as a piece of the solution. It’s not the solution itself,but it’s definitely going to help,” Allen said. “We’ve found that publishersactually withhold information from professors which makes it hard for them tofigure out which books they’re going to choose, which will inevitably lead tothem assigning really expensive textbooks.”

The new law affects any institution that receives federal funding, whichusually includes private institutions that take financial aid or researchgrants, LoMonte said.

“People should also make themselves aware of state level disclosure laws,which in some cases are stronger than the federal one and might entitle you toeven more information,” LoMonte said.

According to the SPLC’s Spring 2010Report, states that already require employees and faculty members haveaccess to textbook costs at public universities include Arizona, California,Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Oklahoma, Oregonand Washington.