In all the brouhaha about the cost of college textbooks, a few rays of sunshine have emerged.
Thanks to the Higher Education Opportunity Act passed by Congress last month, college students will soon be able to take advantage of new approaches to cutting their textbook bills.
According to the Student Public Interest Research Groups, college students spend $700 to $1,000 a year on new and used textbooks. In some cases, a single textbook can cost $200 or more. With book prices rising faster than inflation, a trip to the campus bookstore could be another deal-breaker on whether cash-strapped students can afford college or not.
This type of collegiate arithmetic prompted Congress to intervene.
The bill, which was signed by President Bush in mid-August, includes provisions that require publishers to share pricing information with professors who are reviewing textbook choices.
Another provision forces publishers to unbundle packages of textbooks and supplementary materials, such as workbooks and CD-ROMs, so students can buy only the items they need.
The legislation is "promising and a significant step in the right direction," said Judy Baker, a dean at Foothill College in California and director of the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources. One of the organization's goals is to lower textbook costs by making more education resources available online.
While the new law won't formally take effect until July 2010, it shouldn't take students that long to see the benefits, said Nicole Allen, director of the student public interest group, a consumer advocacy organization.
"We see the textbook market changing quite a bit for the better," she said.
Allen said the most important provision of the new legislation requires publishers to disclose pricing information to faculty about textbooks being considered for a particular class.
To help educators select the best book at the best price, companies will need to include wholesale prices and suggested retail prices, point out substantial changes between current and previous editions, and note the existence and prices of alternative formats.
"The primary reason textbooks are expensive is that the textbooks market does not function like a normal market," Allen wrote in a summary of the federal legislation.
"The person who chooses the textbook -- the faculty -- is not the same person who buys the textbook -- the student. Therefore price is removed as a primary factor in the sale."
Strange, but apparently true. You'd think price would come up at some point in the conversation.
But according to another survey by the student research organization, 77 percent of the college faculty it polled indicated that publishers "rarely or never" put pricing information on the table during sales discussions.
Another new rule will end bundling -- the practice of packaging textbooks with sometimes unnecessary but costly workbooks, CDs, online pass-codes and other supplemental items.
In addition, the law urges colleges and universities to include the International Standard Book Number (or ISBN) and retail price information of required and recommended textbooks in course schedules that students use for registration.
While ISBN information is generally accessible to students now, providing it on the front end during registration will help students better predict their textbook costs for the semester.
Knowing the ISBN should also make it easier to search the used-book market for the best deals early in the process.
Despite these reforms, the legislation alone "is not a panacea," Baker said.
Her organization and the Student Public Interest Research Groups are in the forefront of promoting other strategies to lower textbook costs, including promoting rental programs, boosting library textbook reserves and pushing for digital formats on the Internet.
One of the most promising digital options: open textbooks -- free textbooks available online and licensed to allow users to download, customize and print any part of the text.
Allen's organization since 2003 has been petitioning college teachers to switch to open textbooks. More than 1,000 professors from about 300 colleges in all 50 states have signed a statement declaring their support -- and more free selections are now available online. (For more information, go to www.maketextbooksaffordable.org.)
I'm betting on technology to make the biggest impact on the textbook market. Within five years, I fully expect digital textbooks to be the norm on campus.
Regardless, as more competition enters the textbook market, students can only benefit.