MCSG considers plan to restructure textbook prices

By Kaia Arthur

Responding to rising textbook costs and a number of student complaints, the Macalester College Student Government this semester has begun to discuss a potential plan to lower textbook prices with professors and administrators. The proposal would cause tuition costs for students who do not receive financial aid to rise by about $585, which would go toward subsidizing textbook costs for all students.In a recent MCSG survey of 400 students, a quarter said they had encountered difficulties in purchasing textbooks due to financial constraints and a third said they are “still worried about it.” Sixty percent replied that they often did not have their books within a few days after the beginning of class. Almost 30 percent of the surveyed students said that, on at least one occasion, they did not buy a required book at all.

“There’s an assumption that students are having to make a choice and are forgoing textbooks,” Dean of Students Jim Hoppe said.

Academic Affairs Commission chair Alison Tray ’09 approached Mathematics professor Danny Kaplan to discuss methods for making textbooks more accessible to students.

Tray and Kaplan, who served on the Minnesota legislature’s Textbook Advisory Task Force, focused primarily on presenting a plan that would make books immediately available to students, regardless of their financial situation.

“Professor Kaplan had this idea that works like a medical insurance policy,” Tray said. “You make an initial payment and then just have to pay the co-pay for actual services.”

The proposal has not appeared in formal print, and has only taken form in discussions. The administration, Hoppe said, is now considering the issue, but has not moved past that initial phase of deliberation.

According to Kaplan and Tray, some students on need-based financial aid currently receive $900 in addition to their grant money to pay for supplies and textbooks. Under the plan, students who receive the $900 grant would receive 65 percent less to offset a corresponding tuition increase of $585 for students who do not receive financial aid.

All students, rather than paying the full price for textbooks, would pay 35 percent of the full price at the bookstore. Under the plan, students would be paying about $500,000 per year for textbooks, as opposed to the approximately $1.5 million they pay now, Kaplan said.

“The missing $1 million needs to come from somewhere,” Kaplan said. “Students who are not on financial aid will be paying more to the college, but this increase will be offset by a decrease in the amount they pay to the bookstore,” and financial aid recipients will be paying the same amount as they do now.

Like health insurance, in which people with low medical costs effectively subsidize the expenses for people who have higher medical costs, the plan would call for students who do not receive financial aid to decrease textbook costs for students who are on some form of financial aid.

“As a professor, I like a system that will make textbooks appear cheaper to students. This will get students to buy their textbooks, just as health insurance encourages people to use medical services,” Kaplan said.

Because students on financial aid would receive a significant discount at the bookstore, they would be less likely to turn to outside sources for cheaper textbooks.

“It might make some students angry that they will be discouraged from using outside sources,” Tray said. “ would be more efficient just to be able to use the bookstore.”

Despite the efficiency of the plan, some students said that it offers the student body as a whole no actual savings.

“I think that if the system is going to be reformed, maybe it should actually save us money,” Laura Bartolomei-Hill ’10 said.

However, the plan could eventually save students money at the bookstore, Kaplan said. When students return books after buying cheaper ones online, the cost of running the bookstore increases and is passed along to students who then continue to buy their textbooks online.

“The online sellers can charge lower prices because they have larger sales,” Kaplan said. “Under the [new] plan, the bookstore will also have larger sales

“It’s possible the total costs to students will drop under the plan, but this is uncertain.”

The benefits and drawbacks of the proposed plan remain unclear, but “this is the best thinking we have at this time,” Hoppe said. “It’s a positive outcome if it raises discussion to bring out other ideas to be more fully-formed.

“When there have been big policy shifts, we consult MCSG, have discussions, focus groups, forums, and really try to gauge feedback and get people into discussion.”

“What’s important is getting student feedback and response,” Tray agreed.