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Textbook costs are off the charts

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, Oregon Representative David Wu's party affiliation was misstated in a story on college textbook prices in yesterday's Living/Arts section. Wu is a Democrat.)

The findings in a federal report released yesterday won't surprise anyone who has been to college in recent years: Textbook prices have skyrocketed, closely tracking increases in tuition and fees.

The US Government Accountability Office study, requested by Representative David Wu, an Oregon Republican, found that textbook prices have increased 6 percent a year since the academic year 1987-88 -- twice the general rate of inflation.

The average annual cost of textbooks for a student in 2003-04 was $898 at a four-year college and $886 at a two-year college, the report found. While overall prices have increased 72 percent since 1986, the report said, college tuition and fees have increased 240 percent and textbooks 186 percent. The report echoes many of the findings in a highly critical report issued last year by CALPIRG, a California consumer research group.

Among reasons for the higher prices, the report cited the costs to publishers of issuing more frequent new editions, even in fields with few new developments; costs of developing various instructional supplements such as CD-ROMs and other study features; and the practice of ''bundling" those features with the main texts.

The publishing industry's response to the report was mixed. While endorsing the GAO's analysis of the reasons for price increases, Patricia Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers, disputed the GAO's numbers. In a letter to the agency, Schroeder complained that ''the report creates a misrepresentation of textbook cost by combining the price of textbooks with supplies." Without including supplies, other studies have found, Schroeder wrote, that ''the average four-year college student spends approximately $580 per year" on textbooks.

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