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Miranda Seith is an honors student who came to the University of Montana with a 4.9 GPA.

The freshman planned to hit the books in her first semester of college, but she can't get them all.

In one class, she could get just a couple of books out of the eight or so she needs.

In another class, she said students are passing around one book and sharing it until more texts become available.

Some students aren't expecting their materials until October, more than one month into the semester, and Seith herself has fallen behind in philosophy.

"We're already two chapters into the book that I don't have," Seith said.

Nationally, the textbook publishing industry is in a crisis, and it's putting the hurt on students. For roughly a decade, the UM Bookstore has been grappling with changing market forces and consumer behavior to try to meet the needs of campus.

This semester, trends collided, and the bookstore is coming up short on supplies. Online supplies have dwindled as well.

UM Bookstore CEO Jon Aliri, who is trying to position the independent, not-for-profit store to stay ahead of the market, said he believes the uncertainty in the industry is directly affecting student success rates and even retention.

"Ultimately, the student suffers. Ultimately, it's the student that is directly impacted," Aliri said.

Solutions are costly and controversial – and possibly slow in coming.

***

The rising cost of textbooks is one piece of the complicated problem. Last year, the U.S. PIRG Education Fund released a study that said the cost of college textbooks "has skyrocketed in recent years."

"To students and families already struggling to afford high tuition and fees, an additional $1,200 per year on books and supplies can be the breaking point," said the report, called "Fixing the Broken Textbook Market."

According to the 2014 study from the national and student PIRGs, or Public Interest Research Group:

  • 65 percent of students opted against buying a book because it was too expensive;
  • 94 percent of those students worried their grade would be hurt as a result; and
  • "more than half felt significant concern for their grade."

UM students aren't immune. This semester, her first in college, Seith spent $800 on books.

"Basically, we're going broke for a profit on education, and it's kind of killing us slowly," she said.

Eamon Fahey, chief operating officer at the UM Bookstore, sees students coming in at the last minute looking for books they tried to do without, possibly because of the cost.

"All of a sudden, the week of finals, we have students buying books," Fahey said.

***

The high cost of books and shaky trend in student purchases made projections especially difficult this semester at UM, but the textbook challenge is a national one that has existed for years.

The same digital disruption that hit the music, film and news industries also affected textbook publishers, said Nicole Allen, director of open education at SPARC.

But she said textbook publishers haven't reacted the same way.

"They've been a little slower to be transformed," Allen said.

One reason is their consumers are captives, she said. In other words, once the textbooks have been assigned, students have little choice but to pay the price.

"It's allowed the industry to continue raising prices to a completely out-of-control level, which is why you see $200, $300 introductory biology textbooks," Allen said.

Based in Washington, D.C., SPARC is the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. The coalition bills itself as "an international alliance of academic and research libraries working to create a more open system of scholarly communication."

The used book market then compounds the problem, Allen said. Every new book a publisher sells actually undermines its future profit, meaning the company is going to continue to increase prices.

Every time it ups the price of a new book, it makes it more likely a student will head to the used book market instead.

"So it's a vicious cycle," Allen said.

***

Here's how trends played out at the UM Bookstore, which spends $3.7 million to $4.2 million a year on textbooks.

"It's a significant number, so very conducive to a lot of risks," Aliri said.

Some 10 or 12 years ago, the campus bookstore had 95 percent of the market share, with only a small portion of students getting a book from the library or a friend, said Fahey, COO.

Then, the bookstore could easily predict the number of books students would buy.

Once students learned they could get cheaper used books online, fewer of them bought at the store, and the bookstore was slow to enter the used book market itself, Aliri said.

Roughly three years ago, though, the bookstore jumped into the secondary market to access used books, and it also started offering students the opportunity to rent books, Aliri said.

A rental can cost 50 percent less than a purchase, and more and more students are seeking out that option, he said. Also, in the past, 35 percent to 40 percent of textbook titles were available for rent compared to some 80 percent this year.

And this year, word got out. A surprising number of students went to the bookstore instead of online, having figured out the store is offering good deals, especially with rentals, Aliri said.

"We weren't counting on being that competitive with the students, so all of a sudden, we ran out of books," he said.

He said seeing how sensitive students are to pricing has been an eye-opener this semester.

UM is competing against other university bookstores, too, with Amazon supplying 238 huge campuses, he said. The result is a shortage, with books trickling in the door one at a time.

"Instead of one carton or one palette, we have literally single packages. That's what is showing up in our shipping and receiving area now," Fahey said.

***

In the classroom, David Beck considers cost when he orders books for his students.

"But the most important consideration for me is ... how the books are going to impact the learning in the class," said Beck, in Native American Studies.

He doesn't use textbooks, and the materials he requires are relatively inexpensive. He tries to use books that students will value after the class is over so they can start their libraries, and he also helps students who can't afford the books by reserving them at the library.

"I know a lot of professors do that," said Beck, a member of the Faculty Senate.

He hasn't experienced books arriving late on a regular basis, but when it happens, professors are forced to punt, he said.

"The classes are structured in a way that makes it very difficult," Beck said.

As students and parents prepare for college, he encouraged them to pay close attention to the cost of books when they budget, and even check class requirements in advance if possible.

"If the student can't afford the book, try to find another class where they can afford the book. Sometimes, that's possible. Sometimes, that's not," Beck said.

***

UM is looking at solutions, but the answers aren't simple.

One controversial possibility is working with a company called Rafter. In the model called Rafter360, books are considered as critical to learning as other infrastructure, such as a classroom or desk.

So students pay a flat fee for their books.

"As soon as you say 'fee,' of course, hackles go up," Fahey said.

The model is controversial because some students will pay more than they otherwise would at a time college affordability is at the fore. The model also removes student choice.

In general, estimates show students save overall, but UM needs to figure out if the system would work here, Fahey said.

"It's a very, very different way of distributing course materials," he said.

***

Allen, with SPARC, is a proponent of "open educational resources."

In that model, materials are available for free online under an open copyright license, and instructors can adapt materials to fit their classes. Rice University has a program called OpenStax College, and it's working with schools around the country. 

The idea behind this model is the cost is paid for in advance, Allen said: "Let's come up with a way to fund the development of a high-quality textbook on the front end and make it available to everybody for free."

She said the idea is evolving rapidly, but it won't solve the problem overnight.

Aliri, at UM, said the bookstore hasn't put this option in front of faculty, and it couldn't deliver the content with its current system.

However, he said "free" textbooks don't exist, and he anticipates the private money and foundation dollars that are currently paying for open resources won't last.

"At some point, the funds being injected into those models are going to dry up," Aliri said.

In 2008, the federal government stepped in with a bill that included regulations on price disclosures, Allen said. It lets students access cost information, but she said implementation has been uneven, and it doesn't address the root problem.

"It still doesn't help get the prices down," Allen said.

***

As educators, publishers and others try to sort out the textbook problem, the price of new books continues to go up.

"This all revolves around the fact that we've had such inflation with textbooks," Fahey said. "They're simply too expensive now. Some students, they can't find the book anywhere for a reasonable price. So they don't buy the book at all.

"We need to be concerned about those students."

Seith would agree. When she couldn't get books at the bookstore, she hopped online, but she came up dry there, too.

Professors are helping as she waits, making copies of chapters, but she doesn't want to wait long, and she doesn't believe others do, either.

"We're ravenous. We want to learn."

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University of Montana, higher education