Textbooks still pricey, but University of Massachusetts Amherst students and staff look for ways to reduce costs

Last modified: Sunday, January 25, 2015

AMHERST — At a time when University of Massachusetts Amherst students spend about $1,200 a year on textbooks, one wonders whether the authors of the nearly $300 “Essentials of Investments” would advise students to actually buy a new copy of their own book.

That was not the path chosen by finance major Curtis Kowalski of Boxford, for whom the book is a required text in a required course. The UMass junior went online to rent it from Amazon for $55 rather than pay the $270 to get a new copy from the UMass Textbook Annex.

“Last semester I spent a lot of money on books and I feel like I didn’t end up as well off as I could have been if I just decided to rent all of them on Amazon, so I think that’s kind of the strategy I’m going to go for from now on,” Kowalski said on campus Thursday.

For years, students, administrators and faculty alike have bemoaned the seemingly unchecked spiraling cost of textbooks. Some students say they’ve tried creative ways to avoid having the cost of textbooks add to the already burdensome expense of their college education by avoiding, when possible, courses with inflated textbook prices, renting texts or buying them used whenever possible.

To that end, the university announced this month it would replace the Textbook Annex with an online university store run by Amazon that would offer lower prices to students and a cut of the sales to the university. But that still leaves students paying hundreds of dollars each semester for books, even as they search for lower-cost alternatives to buying books outright.

Seeding new way

Meanwhile, the school has been awarding small grants through its Open Education Initiative to encourage faculty to revamp their courses to include free educational materials, usually online, to students instead of traditional textbooks.

For Finance Professor Benjamin Branch, who has been teaching at UMass since 1975, it is tough to change old habits, which for him include teaching out of “Essentials of Investments,” now in its ninth edition.

“It’s a standard book; a lot of people use it,” Branch said Wednesday. “I switched to it when the book I had been using went out of print.”

“Essentials of Investments” covers the topics Branch wants to teach and he enjoys a good relationship with publisher McGraw-Hill, which provides him with supplemental resources to assist him in teaching the course, he said.

Branch said he understood that the book is expensive, but also said it would be difficult to switch to a different, potentially cheaper book.

“Most professors are set in their ways, and I’m one of them,” Branch said. “To be honest with you, I have been teaching with that particular textbook for several years and to gear up to teach with another one is a substantial investment of time.”

That is where the Open Education Initiative comes in, according to UMass Director of Libraries Jay Schafer.

Started five years ago, the initiative offers faculty members $1,000 to $2,500 grants to go through their course curriculum and see whether free course materials can be used, Schafer said. The university has so far spent $39,000 on grants for 30 faculty members and saved students more than $1 million in textbook prices, he said.

One of those faculty members is Hossein Pishro-Nik, who used two grants to write a free online probability textbook.

Pishro-Nik noticed the textbook he used in his course was inching up to close to $200 and that some students had stopped buying it. Having the book is an important component of his class, and he got serious about the idea of writing his own book in 2012.

“A funny thing happened, I applied for the grant in January 2013 and right then my twin girls were born,” Pishro-Nik said. “It was clear to my wife and I that we were not going to be sleeping in the near future, and I decided to write the book at night.”

The first grant for $2,000 came in two months later, he said. He used the money to hire students to create drawings for him and help him in setting up a website.

Pishro-Nik completed the first eight chapters in eight months, and immediately started using it. He wrote another six chapters the following year and received another $1,000 grant from the Open Education Initiate, ultimately completing the work in August, he said.

It is available in its entirety at www.probabilitycourse.com.

When he first started, Pishro-Nik had a negative view of publishing companies, but discovered that writing a book is hard work and his view of them softened. He decided that most people will probably not write all books for free, but he didn’t let publishers entirely off the hook.

“Commercial books should continue to exist but these publishers have to change their business model,” he said. “They have to lower costs so books aren’t as expensive.”

Maria José Botelho, associate professor of literacy education, used a grant through the Open Education Initiative to rework her curriculum of a teaching class. Rather than use a $100 textbook, she invited her students to bring forward anecdotes from their student teaching experiences.

Botelho said some of her students struggled under the new format because they were more familiar with relying on a textbook, but Botelho believes it encouraged deeper learning.

By allowing students to talk about their own experience in addition to the readings, “we are creating spaces for students to think more deeply and not just remember information for tests and then it is gone,” Botelho said.

Marilyn Billings, the school’s scholarly communication and special initiatives librarian, said the initiative is growing and she hopes the trend will continue.

“If we could get all of the faculty who teach the gen ed courses to adopt this alternative, I think that is a good near-term goal,” Billings said.


A student group affiliated with the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group continues to make textbook affordability a key issue on the UMass campus. Members are lobbying faculty this year to adopt open-source books.

Matt Magalhaes, a first-year student working with the MASSPIRG chapter, said in an email he spent $300 on books for introductory courses that could have used free alternatives. “This is an unfair choice we are asking students to make,” he said. “College affordability is a major issue ... and costly textbooks are an added out-of-pocket expense that makes it really difficult for students to excel.”

According to a MASSPIRG survey, 70 percent of students say they decided at one point or another not to buy textbooks because of high prices.

High costs common

Still, up to now relatively few faculty have signed on with the initiative, which means courses like Branch’s with expensive textbooks are still the norm.

Branch said he would set the price of books lower if it were up to him. But he believes the course — including its tuition and the cost of the book — is worth the price. Many of his students have gone on to get high-paying jobs with banks and other investment firms, he said.

UMass senior Tyler Morse, an environmental design major from Pembroke, emerged from the Textbook Annex Thursday with three books — two used and one rented. In total he spent about $135, he said.

The books were available online at Amazon for less, but Morse said he did not want to wait the two-week delivery period. So he had to go to the annex — high prices and all, he said.

One semester, Morse bought a $185 book new and was only offered $40 when he tried to sell it back. For a different class, Morse bought the required textbook only to find later he did not need it, and most of the course readings were online.

To lighten his financial load, Morse sometimes looks through the course list for classes with cheaper books, he said. He also uses the library to get e-textbooks available to UMass students. He has heard some students visit a website called chegg.com for reduced price textbooks, but he said he had not used it himself.

“I feel like I’m pretty lucky as far as my major,” Morse said. “Majors like math, like physics, engineering ... they end up paying more.”

Behind Morse was freshman Rebecca Hershman of Queens, New York. Hoping to major in chemical engineering, Hershman bought an engineering book for $100 and rented a sociology text for $30. The engineering book was not available used, so she had to buy new. Neither of the books she bought was available on Amazon, she said.

“I guess it is kind of a ripoff; I wish they were a little bit cheaper, but what are you going to do?” she asked.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@gazettenet.com.


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