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A Textbook Case of Catch-22

Lachlan Johnson

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Since the U.S. Congress passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) in 2008, professors and the Whitman bookstore have found themselves hard-pressed to conform to the act’s regulations regarding textbooks. The HEOA requires both publishers and academic institutions to provide students with information on the textbooks associated with courses, preferably before registration for those courses begins.

“I’d like to get my textbooks for next semester [now] so I can start reading over break because next semester is really busy for me,” said senior Spencer May. “Usually I go to Amazon [to order textbooks], but if the prices at Amazon and the Whitman bookstore are the same I go to the bookstore … The Whitman bookstore really does its best to serve Whitman students to the best of its ability.”

The Whitman bookstore, faculty and administrators have been working for several years to increase the amount of information available about textbooks being used in each course before registration. However, no information was available during the most recent registration as the software was in the middle of a transition.

Photos by Becca Mellema.

“The bookstore is very aware of what the regulations are, which basically say that students have a right to know what textbooks are being required for each class and approximately what those textbooks are going to cost in the preregistration process so they can make good decisions before they come in to class,” said Associate Dean of Students Barbara Maxwell.

Whitman typically does preregistration for spring and fall semesters in November and April, respectively. This means that in order to have textbook choices available during registration, decisions must be made in October and March. While other institutions usually repeat the same courses using the same textbooks, Whitman’s course offerings frequently change, and even courses that are repeated often change texts. For classes being taught by new faculty, providing the titles of texts in March is sometimes unfeasible.

“Before I even technically started here one of the things I had to do was really scramble to get textbook orders in for my fall classes,” said Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology and Environmental Student Jesse Abrams. “[In some cases] textbook orders are due before the departments make an offer [of employment to new professors being hired for the next semester].”

If a department decides on textbooks for a new professor, it runs the risk of the professor switching the texts, resulting in students buying books which are not used in their courses.

Veteran professors can also face issues with the HEOA’s demands. Because textbooks are due so far in advance, they must finalize their syllabi for a semester many months in advance, and are unable to take advantage of summer and winter breaks or incorporate materials at the last minute.

Whitman College Bookstore

“I have talked to other professors who say, ‘There’s just no way I can meet that early deadline, therefore I’m just not going to go through the campus bookstore to do my book orders.’ That’s not my approach, but I have heard that it’s something that professors do in order to circumvent the [Higher Education Opportunity Act],” said Abrams.

The possibility of professors and students turning to other sources for texts is a serious risk to Whitman’s bookstore. While the bookstore manages to sell books to students at discount rates by passing along savings from buying bulk from publishers, serious competition from Amazon and Barnes & Noble remains a risk.

“When I started working [in New York], there were over 4,500 independent bookstores in this country … there are now about 1,400 … A number of publishers have gone out of business because Amazon requests a 55 percent discount [when it places orders],” said Book Acquisition Specialist Janice King, who does textbook ordering for the Whitman bookstore. “Publishers are beginning to price for [the] Amazon discount. So what happens is the prices rise, because Amazon [is] discounting and [the publishers are] pricing texts to get their [profit after the] discount with Amazon, rather than pricing as they would in an independent market.”

With all of the problems involved with the HEOA, Whitman will likely never be able to fully comply with its requirements. Fortunately, there is no immediate threat of retaliation by regulators for the college’s failure to provide textbook information for every course at registration.

“[The HEOA] has no teeth. Basically, the way it was written … asks colleges to do the best job that they can, to do what’s reasonable, and there’s no penalty if you don’t comply with it. There’s no fines, there’s no angry letters to the president [of the college], there’s basically no teeth in this legislation,” said Maxwell. “So we have adopted an attitude that it was written with good intentions––to make sure that students are aware of costs, that students understand what is going to be required of them––so we try to comply in the very best way we can knowing that we’ll probably never be 100 percent.”

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Whitman news since 1896
A Textbook Case of Catch-22