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New Government Accountability Office Report Acknowledges Publishers’ Successful Efforts To Improve Access, Understanding and Costs of College Textbooks

Report Cites Quality and Relevance, not Cost, as Faculty’s Highest Priorities in Choosing Course Materials

Washington, DC; June 7, 2013 — The U.S. Government Accountability Office’s newly-released report "College Textbooks: Students Have Greater Access to Textbook Information" recognizes successful efforts undertaken by higher education publishers that have resulted in broadening students’ price options for choosing course materials and increasing transparency of information about textbook cost, formats and other options to faculty and students.

The report acknowledges that publishers had made significant editorial, technological and financial investments required for innovations in educational learning materials. As explained in the report, “costs associated with developing products that accompany textbooks — including study guides and technology applications such as online homework and quizzes that allow instructors to track student progress — best explained (textbook) price increases.”

Faculty interviewed by GAO noted that “the quality and relevance of materials” were their highest priorities in choosing textbooks, over cost or format considerations. While not addressed in the report, these comments raise questions about faculty acceptance of the plethora of non-professionally-published open source textbooks currently being developed and sometimes required as substitute materials at some institutions.

The report also addresses how colleges and universities inform students about course materials options and how students can best benefit from information.

“Our industry appreciates the extensive research and thoughtful analysis conducted by the Government Accountability Office,” said Bruce Hildebrand, Executive Director, Higher Education. “The report provides a comprehensive overview of the breadth of materials, products and services currently offered by publishers to students and faculty that are designed to improve student success, thereby reducing student spending. It also acknowledges the work undertaken by our industry on behalf of the Higher Education Opportunity Act as well as initiatives many publishers fulfilled in advance of HEOA.”

Among the key points of the report:

  • It provides details about how “publishers produce a variety of products and services for faculty to choose from in selecting course materials:
    • “In addition to traditional textbooks, faculty can work with publishers to create customized course materials by adding or deleting information from a single textbook or multiple sources.”
    • “Faculty may also select supplemental materials, such as workbooks, lab activities, and study guides. Supplemental materials and textbooks may be sold together in one package…and may also be available for sale separately.”
    • “In addition to print versions, (publishers have made) course materials often available as digital products that can be accessed on computers or e-readers. Publishers have also developed online interactive systems that integrate multimedia instructional material with supplemental materials like homework or personalized quizzes and tutorials.”
  • GAO data shows textbook prices rising from 2002 to 2012 at an average of 6 percent per year, while tuition and fees increased at an average of 7 percent. Additionally, over this time period, tuition and fees increased by a total of 89 percent while new textbook prices increased by a total of 82 percent.
  • The GAO study cites faculty’s growing interest in and use of digital products and services in teaching and how, in turn, publishers have delivered a vast array of relevant tools unrelated to HEOA. One example noted is the increasing importance to faculty of digital assessment tools enabling tracking of student progress in an effort to improve student outcomes. According to the report, “In 2005, we reported that publishers were developing these types of digital products to help enhance faculty productivity and learning. Currently, publishers are expanding these offerings with interactive products like online interactive systems which may include some combination of instructional material, adaptive homework questions, exams, worksheets or tutoring programs in one system. Representatives of two campus bookstores and a faculty group told us that online interactive systems are becoming more popular at their schools.”
  • The report notes that publishers have effectively disclosed textbook information such as pricing and format options to faculty, students and the public with the goal of transparency. Outreach to faculty was done “online and in other marketing materials, as well as in the course materials themselves. In most cases, publishers’ textbook information was available to students and the public, in addition to faculty…(including disclosure of) retail prices and format options in publicly accessible areas of their websites.” GAO acknowledged that publishers included in the study had been required to invest additional time and cost into process changes to meet disclosure and transparency standards.

According to the report, however, faculty said the availability of such extensive information had limited effect on their decision-making in regard to textbook selections. Instead, faculty were most interested in what they considered “the most appropriate materials” over pricing and format considerations. Only after they have identified the most appropriate course materials will faculty consider pricing and format options, according to stakeholders.

As the report explains: “One faculty group we spoke with explained that the quality and relevance of the materials are the key factors in finding the best match for the course. Another group said they need to determine whether the material is at a level suitable for the students likely to enroll and comprehensive enough for the content they plan to cover…A representative of a national campus retailer said faculty ask about cost-saving options like digital formats and textbook rentals after they have identified the best materials to help their students master the necessary concepts.”

The GAO document echoes and expands faculty opinion about the importance of textbook quality as captured in other reports, including a high-profile study conducted on faculty acceptance of open source content by UC Berkeley and the Student PIRG advocacy group.

“While some states and universities have directed significant funds to recreate a semblance of textbooks solely to eliminate those costs, that commitment is well-intentioned but shortsighted,” said Hildebrand. “As the GAO report and others demonstrate, faculty consider high-quality, professionally-produced learning materials with state-of-the-art tools and technology are the most effective way to help their students succeed.”

About AAP

The Association of American Publishers (AAP) represents about four hundred member organizations including major commercial, digital learning and education and professional publishers alongside independents, non-profits, university presses and scholarly societies. We represent the industry’s priorities on policy, legislative and regulatory issues regionally, nationally and worldwide. These include the protection of intellectual property rights and worldwide copyright enforcement, digital and new technology issues, funding for education and libraries, tax and trade, censorship and literacy. Find us online at www.publishers.org or on twitter at @AmericanPublish.