New federal law mandates disclosure of textbook information, including pricing

A new federal law mandating greater transparency in the sale and pricing of textbooks will take effect July 1.

As a provision of the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA), textbook publishers will now be required to provide detailed information in writing to faculty selecting course materials. Publishers must provide the price of the textbook, copyright dates of the three previous editions, a description of content changes, whether the text is available in other formats and the price for those formats, as well as the prices of bundled and unbundled textbooks, or textbooks sold as a set, according to a letter by Vincent Sampson, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Planning, and Innovation at the Office of Postsecondary Education, analyzing the HEOA changes.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said that the new information that will be available can help student journalists write about textbook prices.

"Once the pricing information is in the hands of college employees, then at a public institution you ought to be able to use open records law to get access to it," LoMonte said. " If there's one thing that students universally complain about, at every level of institution, it's the cost of textbooks. So publicizing pricing information is a valuable public service that the student media can provide."

The law states that a university must disclose online the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) or the author, title, publisher and copyright date as well as the retail price. It also encourages schools to disclose information about renting textbooks, purchasing used textbooks, using buy-back programs and finding "alternative content delivery programs."

Nicole Allen, textbooks advocate for Student Public Interest Research Groups, which organizes college students to help solve public interest problems, said that the transparency around textbook prices is complicated.

"We look at HEOA as a piece of the solution. It's not the solution itself, but it's definitely going to help," Allen said. "We've found that publishers actually withhold information from professors which makes it hard for them to figure out which books they're going to choose, which will inevitably lead to them assigning really expensive textbooks."

The new law affects any institution that receives federal funding, which usually includes private institutions that take financial aid or research grants, LoMonte said.

"People should also make themselves aware of state level disclosure laws, which in some cases are stronger than the federal one and might entitle you to even more information," LoMonte said.

According to the SPLC's Spring 2010 Report, states that already require employees and faculty members have access to textbook costs at public universities include Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington.

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    Using textbook transparency laws Report, 5/01/2010