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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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Professors Take a Stand Against Rising Textbook Costs

Jake Whritenour’s eyes widened and jaw dropped in disbelief when he saw the $465 bill for textbooks, and he felt his wallet shrink. ‘I worked a long time for that money,’ said Whritenour, 18, a mechanical engineering major at Stony Brook. ‘Looks like I’ll be getting a job.’

Students across the country share in Whritenour’s despair. The Government Accountability Office has found that students pay, on average, $900 for textbooks a year. Textbook prices have also tripled from 1986 to 2004, and it is estimated that overall students pay $6 billion on books a year. ‘Textbook prices can be the tipping point between going to college and dropping out, because of cost,’ said Nicole Allen, the campaign director for the watchdog group Make Textbooks Affordable.

With tuition at Stony Brook already increased for the current semester, and the likelihood of additional increases on the way, textbooks prices are becoming the tipping point for many students. Keith Filangieri, 22, a theater major at Stony Brook,worked extra hours to afford books for the fall semester and will have to do the same in the spring.
Professors have heard their student’s cries for help and are trying to be the solution. About 2,000 professors from Harvard to Suffolk Community College have signed a statement on the Make Textbooks Affordable campaign website, pledging to use online books in their classes.

R. Preston McAfee is one of these professors who have chosen to publish his book online for free. ‘I couldn’t continue assigning idiotic books that are starting to break $200,’ said McAfee, an economics professor at Caltech. MacAfee in 2006 published his ‘Introduction to Economics Analysis’ textbook online. Originally offered $100,000 to publish his book, he declined and decided to publish online, citing that the textbook industry was unfair to students. The book, including revisions, has since been downloaded almost 40,000 times.

McAfee is one professor who recognized the need for a change, but he is just one of many. Professors like Warren Siegal, a theoretical physics professor at Stony Brook, have also decided to publish solely online for the benefit of their students. Like many others Siegal has made his textbook, Fields, available online for free. ‘Textbooks are really expensive nowadays,’ said Siegal. ‘It’s more convenient to have it on the web. It’s easier to make changes.’

Moreover, according to Siegal, with his book online he has greater control over what his students read and their overall understanding of the material. He also makes the point that the portability and small size of online texts can lead to entire libraries stored on student’s laptops.

In most books, according to Siegal and other professors, there is not much of a change from edition to edition. According to a GAO report released in 2007, textbooks are revised every three to four years. A poll taken of 1,029 professors found that textbook revisions should be held off until there is a major change in content.

‘It was $150 for the new edition, which means they changed a number in each problem,’ said Kelly Zorn a Stony Brook sophomore, mechanical engineering major, referring to her calculus book, ‘it’s excessive and some professors should just let us use the old edition.’

Professors like McAfee and Siegal are visionaries, according to Allen. ‘I think it is fantastic that some professors are choosing to put their books online for free,’ she said, ‘I think that could become more common, as more online educational material becomes available and as textbook costs increase.’

From coast to coast, free online books are taking center stage in all levels of education. In a speech last summer, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California launched a digital textbook initiative providing math and science books for high schools online, saving schools up to $400 million a year.

The Sony Corporation in Washington D.C. donated almost 5,000 Sony Book readers to the public schools, according to Michael LoMonico, an English professor at Stony Brook, who works with students preparing to be teachers. The question in D.C. was: would this make students learn better and read more? ‘My response was, I don’t know, but it will make them read differently and that’s the key,’ LoMonoco said.

Not everyone is happy with the idea of textbooks being solely online. ‘I just like having the book in my hands, you know, underlining and highlighting things,’ said Kelly Alefeld, a Stony Brook sophomore and biochemistry major, who spends on average $500 a semester on books.

Students overall seem evenly split when it comes to digital textbooks. According to a 2008 survey done by ebrary, a company that helps libraries with their digital needs, 49 percent of students surveyed said they have never used eBooks.

Nonetheless, the digital revolution of textbooks is well under way. ‘I fully think that in 5 years,everyone will be using some sort of an electronic reader,’ said LoMonico. ‘Our concept of a library is that it’s a brick and mortar building, but it doesn’t need to be that anymore,’ he said, ‘It can be up in the either somewhere.’ LoMonico is also involved in a project that would bring the Folger Shakespeare texts online into the public domain.

McAfee has even a greater view of the future. He fully believes that the future will give breath to a completely different type of book. He envisions a self-directed book that lets students progress at their own pace. ‘Math books will construct problems for the student’s current skill level and history books will have simulations of the historical events,’ McAfee said.

However, this is not the case today. McAfee and about 2,000 other professors agree that something has to be done now. One idea proposed by McAfee is a $250,000 prize that would be offered to anyone who can write the best online textbook on any topic. The prize could be given by a public university, who would then charge students as little as $12 for the book as opposed to the nearly $200 they would be paying otherwise.

‘Anything that stands in the way of the dissemination of knowledge is a real problem,’ said McAfee, who believes there is no reason why in today’s world, where unlimited information is available online, textbooks need to be guarded behind $237 price tags.

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