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Modern languages and literatures senior Sara O’Reilly purchased only one out of the seven books she needed to this quarter.

And she doesn’t regret a thing.

Video by Lila Schoenfield

It’s no secret textbooks are expensive on college campuses in general. With this reality in mind, Cal Poly and the students and professors within the university are finding new ways to make textbook buying less expensive.

What the university is doing

According to calculations from University of Michigan-Flint economics and finances professor Mark J. Perry, textbook costs for college students have increased by 945 percent during the past couple decades.

While textbook prices have shot up, the Cal Poly University Store — contrary to popular belief — has generally sustained lower textbook prices than the retailers.Graphic by Kendall Hober

The reason for this, as said by psychology professor Laura Freberg, is because the bookstore is independent as opposed to other university stores owned by big names like Barnes & Noble. Those owned by Barnes & Noble need to have their prices at the Barnes & Noble standard, usually a little on the higher side.

“Cal Poly is one of the few independent bookstores in the country, Barnes & Noble owns almost every bookstore in every university in the country and they’re the ones driving the system,” Freberg said.

According to BNED, the educational arm of Barnes & Noble, they “directly serve over 5 million students and faculty members across 724 campus stores nationwide.”

What professors are doing

Freberg has jumped on the eBook wagon as a way to provide cheaper books for her students.

eBooks are typically a third of the price of traditional textbooks and offer additional perks such as auxiliary homework and online practice tests. Freberg said she’s seen a significant boost in student performance since switching to eBooks.

Another way professors have tried to cut textbook costs for students is by using an free, online open-source textbook catalog called OpenStax.

Graphic by Celina Oseguera | Information by Matthew Giancanelli

OpenStax launched in 2012 and currently has over 19 titles. The open-source catalog claims to have saved U.S. students approximately $30 million in textbook costs as of 2014. They offer generic textbooks that professors can either use as is or start as a base and create their own, cutting publishers and bookstores out of the equation as well as the cost that goes along with it.

Some Cal Poly professors use OpenStax, but some, including Freberg, are wary. Being a seasoned textbook writer, Freberg knows the level of review that goes into an educational book and wants to provide students with accurate information that she has vetted.

“I’ve looked at the OpenStax version of intro psychology and I would not use it for my students at Cal Poly. I don’t think it’s quality, you might as well say ‘go read Wikipedia,’” Freberg said. “You get what you pay for sometimes.”

Journalism professor Bill Loving felt the same way about catalogs like OpenStax that produce template books. He’d rather write the book himself since he has the most knowledge on the subject. This is especially true for his mass media law class (JOUR 302).

“It makes it more efficient because when I look at the cases, they are cases that I’m very familiar with and I’m adding stuff based upon my understanding of how the book has developed over the years,” Loving said of his mass media law book.

Loving and his co-writer have calculated that they earn approximately minimum wage for their book, considering all the hours they spend revising and updating. But this is what it takes to ensure high quality educational material, Loving said.

On the other hand, associate physics professor Peter Schwartz embraces OpenStax. He is one of the few professors who uses OpenStax on the Cal Poly campus. He uses them to supplement his instructional YouTube videos.

According to Schwartz, traditional textbooks are packed with information students may not actually need. Because of the large amount of information in the book, the prices tend to be higher and the students are paying for information they may not use.

“My motivation (to use OpenStax) is resentment against the textbook racket. These are way too big and way too expensive,” Schwartz said.

What students are doing

According to a 2014 survey from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, 65 percent of college students have skipped buying a “required reading” book because it was out of their budget.

This sentiment exists at Cal Poly as well. Here are some tips from students who have used alternative ways to get books.

Agricultural science freshman Will Peterson

“I see myself not buying textbooks the older I get because I can’t spend that much money every year.” 

Peterson’s older sister recently graduated from Cal Poly and gave him some pointers on how he can save a few bucks on textbooks and succeed. In order to get most of his books, Peterson goes to the library and checks them out for two hours. When he does buy books, he uses them quite a bit.

Graphic communication sophomore Robbie Gray

“I always download my textbooks off the internet, I hate wasting money on them when I know I can get download them for free.” 

Gray went so far as saying he refuses to step inside the bookstore. Gray finished by saying, “I probably won’t buy a textbook my entire time here at Cal Poly.”

BioResource and agricultural engineering junior Markus Nygren

“Each quarter I buy less and less books. I play each quarter by ear and really try to figure out if I need the book for the class.”  

And out of all the books he’s bought, he has used all of them, Nygren said.

Will prices ever go down?

With the different options Cal Poly and its professors and students try to make textbook buying cheaper, the question remains: Will the textbook industry make books cheaper than they are now?

For Freberg, there is a way to make textbooks more affordable, but the change has to happen with the publishers who set the higher book prices.

“I think there is room for making the textbooks more affordable, but I think the publishers have taken an unfair kind of villain role in this,” Freberg said.

Editor’s note: The story has been updated to clarify Peter Schwartz’s comment on why he uses OpenStax. 

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