TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: College Textbook Pricing

Every Tuesday during the academic year, the Student Press Law Center will be featuring a tip or story idea utilizing public disclosure laws — a feature we’re calling “Transparency Tuesdays.”

For starters, let’s focus on that persistent peeve of cash-strapped college students everywhere: the $120 textbook. Why do these things cost so much? Is anything really changed from one edition to the next? And do we have to buy the DVD along with the book if we’re not planning to use it?

Turns out, there’s an app for this. It’s called the Higher Education Opportunity Act, and since July 2010, it has empowered college employees to demand detailed disclosures from textbook publishers. These disclosures include:

  • The wholesale price at which the book is being made available to stores (so as to police against excessive retailer mark-ups).
  • A rundown of the revisions since the book’s previous edition (so buyers can decide whether a used prior edition will suffice).
  • The sale price for each “unbundled” part of a book/CD/DVD package.

The Act also requires colleges to include textbook pricing information along with the course description when they post registration materials online.

In addition to the federal legislation, at least fourteen states have their own textbook transparency laws, most of which mirror the federal disclosure requirements. Although journalists are not entitled to obtain the information from publishers directly, a friendly professor can initiate the request — or, once the information is in the hands of a public college, it generally can be obtained through a public-records request.

For help preparing a public-records request tailored to your state’s sunshine laws, take advantage of the SPLC’s open records request letter generator, a fill-in-the-blanks shortcut that makes requesting government documents a snap.