Politics & Government

Expensive college textbooks targeted by two Puyallup legislators

After three years in college, University of Washington-Tacoma student Zeeshan Karim knows how to avoid paying high prices for textbooks.

And he isn’t shy about how he does it.

“Illegal downloads. Absolutely,” said the 20-year-old UWT computer engineering student.

If he can’t find it for free, Karim uses websites such as amazon.com to rent or buy books and then sell them back at the end of the quarter.

UWT psychology major Marissa Gregg, 20, says she would’ve spent $200 to $300 more on textbooks this quarter if she hadn’t used alternative sites including valorebooks.com and chegg.com.

Karim and Gregg learned quickly how to find cheaper textbook options, but there still are times when a student’s only option is to pay full price.

Aware of the toll on students’ wallets, two Puyallup legislators are looking to reduce college textbook expenses.

Rep. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, wants to cap it at $100 per book. He introduced House Bill 1958, which would restrict professors from requiring books above that amount unless no comparable lower-cost material is available.

The bill would apply to community and technical colleges, as well as four-year state universities.

“There are strong interests that keep textbooks exorbitantly priced. It is not a true free market,” said Zeiger, the ranking Republican on the House Higher Education Committee.

“Textbook companies need to come to the Legislature and explain why they are charging $150 to $200 for a textbook,” he said.

If publishers continue charging high prices, it’s time the Legislature respond, he said.

Rep. Melanie Stambaugh, R-Puyallup, also wants to reduce those expenses for students.

She proposed House Bill 1973 to establish a pilot program at Eastern Washington University. The school’s libraries would give up to 10 professors grant money to create and assign course materials other than textbooks. That includes online materials and videos.

For students who want a hard copy to highlight and write in, Stambaugh said the school could partner with an on-campus printing source, which would be cheaper than a private publishing company.

If successful, the first-year legislator hopes to see the program expand to other higher-education institutions. Additional legislation could follow to make that happen, she said.

Some legislators this year are proposing to cut tuition at all Washington public universities and community colleges. But with an estimated $226 million price tag, their plan might face long odds.

Chipping away at high textbook costs would be a more modest approach.

“When we look at access and affordability for students, there’s the tuition piece. But if we’re unable to make great strides in that area, what other areas can be reduced?” Stambaugh said. “Textbooks seemed natural.”

Community and technical colleges already have a network of online resources giving students access to cheaper texts. Completed in 2013, it’s called the Open Course Library, and it provides digital materials that are either free or cost no more than $30 for 81 high-enrollment courses.

Stambaugh hopes her pilot program ultimately will lead to the creation of a similar open-course system for four-year schools.

Both bills are slated for a hearing Tuesday before the House Higher Education Committee.

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