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New federal rules aim to help college students with textbook costs

07/21/2010 11:14 PM

07/22/2010 8:22 AM

Kyle Vrla walked away from college life in May with a civil-engineering degree from Texas A&M. He also has a load of textbooks he hopes to sell to recoup some of the estimated $4,000 he spent on them during four years at College Station.

Vrla, who is working in Dallas, got his college textbooks every which way -- new, used, online and borrowed. Sometimes, he didn't get his money's worth -- he used one only three times and lost $150 on another because he couldn't resell it.

"When I went to resell the fifth edition of my Mechanics of Materials, the course had switched to the sixth edition the semester after me," Vrla said.

Advocates say a new set of federal provisions, aimed at driving down the cost of college textbooks, should help students this fall. On July 1, these rules took effect:

Publishers must give professors detailed information about textbook prices, revision histories and a list of alternate formats.

Publishers have to sell materials typically bundled with textbooks -- such as CDs, DVDs and workbooks -- separately so students don't have to buy them.

Colleges have to include in-course schedules with required textbooks for each class, including the book's price and International Standard Book Number, an identifying tool.

The protections, included in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, are an attempt to lessen student debt, said U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., on Wednesday.

"The cost of education is of concern not only to students and families but to the nation," Durbin said, explaining why the government got involved in textbook prices. "Students are emerging with more and more debt."

Durbin has estimated that textbooks cost college students $800 to $1,200 a year and that prices have been rising at four times the rate of inflation.

Students welcome the new protections.

"Textbooks are ridiculously expensive," said Frank Netscher, 22, a senior physics major at the University of Texas at Austin.

Students often feel trapped by the expense, and sometimes they choose not to pay for a book to save money.

"I skimped on a physics course, and I skimped on a course called linear systems," Netscher said. "The reason I didn't buy the books was because I knew I could pass the courses."

Area colleges, including the University of Texas at Arlington, the University of North Texas and Texas Christian University, are already providing students access to textbook information in course schedules. For example, a link navigates UNT students from the course catalog and registration site to detailed text information, said Tom Rufer, UNT's assistant vice president for auxiliary services.

There, students will find required and recommended textbooks with title, author, edition, copyright year, publisher and ISBN reference, Rufer said. Students can also learn whether a textbook has not been chosen, as well as the new, used and rental prices at the UNT Bookstore, if available.

UTA Bookstore manager Bill Coulter said students going online to the university's class schedule can click on a book icon that includes information similar to what UNT is providing. The bookstore is also continuing a book rental program.

"It was hugely popular," Coulter said, adding that books selling new for $100 were being rented for a semester for about $47.

Rufer said the UNT bookstore will have more than 975 titles available for rent this fall. UNT is also focused on buying back more used textbooks to have them in supply for students.

"We are giving more options to students," Rufer said. "Students really can have an impact on lowering their costs."

Drew Bradley, 19, who will be a sophomore at UNT this fall, quickly learned to be savvy about textbook shopping. He spent about $500 on new books in his first semester. But in his second, he cut the cost to about $150 to $200 by using ISBNs to shop online. He said some books online are only $2.

"Everything counts," he said. "If you can get them used, go online, shop around."

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675

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