Harvard Seeks Cheaper Textbooks

Deans Ask University Professors to Reduce Financial Burden on Students

Two top deans have asked Harvard University professors to reduce student expenditures on textbooks and other course material by putting those items on line or by deciding earlier if they plan to use the same textbook in subsequent semesters.

Jeremy R. Knowles, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, and Benedict H. Gross, dean of Harvard College, said the average amount Harvard students spend on textbooks, compact discs, course packets, and other related materials is pushing $1,300 a year.

"Many of our students either skimp on daily expenses to purchase course materials or skimp on their books to make ends meet," the deans wrote in an e-mail to staff last week.

Many Harvard students interviewed yesterday applauded the effort and said they hope it leads to a universitywide initiative to reduce student spending on course materials.

"I personally don't buy all the texts because prices are absurd," said Roy Cohen, 22, of Israel.

"I feel if Harvard is trying to open it's door more to people with diverse financial backgrounds, they could do more to help subsidize book costs," said Cohen, who has not declared a major.

The deans said they sent the e-mail this year because of concern over the growing cost of textbooks, as well as to remind faculty that more written material is available on line and licensable for institutional use.

The deans estimate that students collectively spend $8.5 million a year on textbooks and other course materials.

The move by Harvard deans follows attempts in Congress and state legislatures in Maryland, New York, and elsewhere to rein in rising textbook spending.

A US Government Accountability Office study two years ago found that textbook prices have been increasing about 6 percent a year since the 1987-88 school year because of the frequent updating of editions and bundling textbooks with materials such as CD-ROMs.

The study found students spend about $900 a year.

State Representative Steven M. Walsh, Democrat of Lynn, has filed a bill this year requiring publishers distributing textbooks in the Bay State to make them available for sale without forcing students to buy CD-ROMs, workbooks, and other materials.

But complaints about costs, particularly among students, go beyond materials sold by publishers. Students also are annoyed by the cost of course packets, which are compiled by professors and include photocopies of copyrighted materials, such as academic journal articles. The packets can run more than $100 at Harvard, students say.

"The course packets have no resale value," said Rick McKellar, 18, a freshman from Tennessee who has not declared a major. "I'd rather spend more on a hard cover book."

The deans said that faculty could help students by deciding in early spring whether they intend to use the same textbook in the fall.

A quicker decision could allow the Harvard Coop to buy back books from students enrolled in spring classes .

The students would receive about 50 percent of their payment back, while students next fall would have the benefit of buying a used book at a discount.

Some Harvard students, outraged by textbook costs, have created Web sites that list required readings for various courses and links to such places as, where students can buy books for less than area bookstores charge.

But even buying online has its pitfalls, one student said.

"Sometimes, when you buy on line, the books don't get here on time," said Stephanie Shing, 18, a freshman from Cambridge.