Open your books to student debt


Sam Greene/Iowa State Daily

A student worker searches the shelves of the Memorial Union bookstore to complete student’s online pre-orders for textbooks and other required supplies.

Eric Wirth

This past weekend, students flooded into the Memorial Union’s Multicultural Center to pick up textbooks they ordered for the spring semester. While the sight of students leaving the Memorial Union early in the semester with boxes brimming with textbooks has become normal, the bills for the burdensome books are anything but.

“I paid $111 for books from the bookstore,” said Breanna Kixmiller, a freshman double majoring in integrated studio arts and performing arts.

Kixmiller’s bill falls well below average, according to Amy DeLashmutt, marketing and customer service manager for the University Book Store.

“Students spend between $450 and $500 on average per semester for books and supplies from the University Book Store,” DeLashmutt said.

With average textbook bills flirting with the $1000 mark per academic year, some students have become disenfranchised with the University Book Store. This is due in part to a misunderstanding of where the money they spend on books ultimately goes.

When asked what percentage of book sales she thought the University Book Store keeps for profit, Kixmiller responded with what sounds like a reasonable number.

“50 percent,” Kixmiller said.

In reality, the University Book Store is earning far less than that in pure profit.

Out of every $100 the University Book Store sells in books, $64 goes back to the publisher, $32 covers shipping and the store overhead, and the store makes $4 in profit, according to DeLashmutt.

Only 4 percent of the money made from textbooks at the University Bookstore is returned for profit. This number is a far cry from the 50 percent estimate made by Kixmiller.

Not only are there misconceptions about profits for the University Book Store, but also about how the store is run.

“We don’t receive any state funding or student fees,” DeLashmutt said.

Even though the University Bookstore is an Iowa State University entity, it is self-sustaining. The store must rent space from the Memorial Union, cover utility bills and payroll, and pay all other accompanying overhead expenses.

Students still have a right to be leery of high textbook prices, especially with student debt on the rise. According to a recent report by The Institute for College Access and Success, student debt saw a 2 percent increase from 2012 to 2013. The report goes on to state that six states surpassed the $30,000 average student debt mark, with Iowa barely squeaking under the line at $29,370, claiming the ninth spot in average student debt in the nation.

With the high cost of post-secondary education in mind, many professors are becoming more conscious and deliberative about which textbooks they assign.

“Don’t assign a textbook for the sake of assigning a textbook,” said Dr. Michael Bugeja, professor and director of the Greenlee School of Journalism at Iowa State.

Bugeja, who himself has written textbooks, said that not only is the majority of money from textbooks not going to the book vendors, it’s not going to the authors either.

“There’s no money in books,” Bugeja said, noting that his last royalty check was a mere $28.

The average royalty agreement for an author ranges from 8 to 10 percent of a book’s sale price, according to Bugeja and with more and more books being sold in digital format, the royalty payments from publishers are becoming mere micropayments.

Dr. Alex Tuckness, a professor in the political science department who is currently co-writing a textbook with fellow professor Clark Wolf, said that he takes cost into account when deciding which books to use for his class. However, Tuckness said that there is a more important question he asks himself first when choosing class materials.

“Do I think it will be the best book to use for the course?” Tuckness said.

When asked if he would use his own textbook in a class, Tuckness said he would because it would be tailored to fit his class. He also said he could do so in good conscience due in part to an Iowa State policy regarding royalty payments to professors who use their own book in class, which removes the ethical conflict of interest of professors profiting off their students.

According to the Iowa State University Faculty Handbook section,

“…it is university policy that a faculty member of Iowa State University may use, in university classes, textbooks or other instructional materials for which he/she receives royalties or remuneration provided that, for any materials so used at Iowa State, the payments that could normally accrue to the faculty member are assigned to the university…”

Professors, whether profiting or not, are not the only ones who the task of combatting textbook prices falls on. Students are in some cases accountable as well. Sometimes the simplest of questions can save hundreds of dollars.

“Ask yourself if you’re actually planning to study or not,” Tuckness said when questioned about what advice he would give to students before they order their books.

Tuckness went on to say that, within the total price of a college education, books are a very small percentage.

“It’s a little bit like somebody who spends $200,000 building a dream house and then balks at spending some money to put a refrigerator in at the end,” Tuckness said in regards to students fretting about textbook prices in lieu of the much higher cost of tuition.

Students are becoming savvier at decreasing the looming textbook bill associated with the start of each semester. With online sites such as Amazon offering textbooks at sometimes drastically lower prices than competitors, the marketplace for textbooks is becoming more competitive.

In what might come as a surprise, even the University Book Store website is showing what Amazon and other competing retailers have to offer. According to DeLashmutt, the University Book Store is showing competitor prices so that students can make an informed decision.

“We understand higher education is expensive,” DeLashmutt said adding, “we value the students.”

DeLashmutt went on to say that the University Book Store is also providing the prices of competitors in order to combat the assumption that the University Book Store is always the most expensive.

Another factor that plays into textbook pricing is availability. While the deadlines for professors to submit book lists are set at March 1 for summer and fall semesters, and Oct. 1 for the spring. Certain conflicts cause certain class sections to receive book lists much later.

In order to keep books in stock, the University Book Store is on the lookout to buy needed books back from students.

“We don’t care where you bought it, you can still sell [it] back to the bookstore,” DeLashmutt said in an attempt to break the stigma that students may only sell books back to the University Book Store if they bought them there.

When looked at on a U-Bill, textbooks may seem an unsightly expense. When viewed as an investment however, much like a laptop for school, or education as a whole, textbooks can be seen as tool to provide a better college experience.

More college textbook frequently asked questions.