We are pleased to see the regents tackling an issue that, while somewhat trivial in the context of the UW System's massive budget, affects virtually every UW student at the beginning of each semester. In an age when tuition and segregated fees are both rising much faster than the cost of inflation, it is worth investigating whether the UW System can facilitate any changes to save students money at the bookstore.
On Monday, the UW-Madison campus released its own study into textbook costs and the best ways to respond to them. This report, along with similar ones from other UW campuses, will be discussed by the regents tomorrow.
We are happy to report that our campus administration seems to have a firm grasp of the problem and a sound perspective on the most efficient ways to deal with it. We are encouraged, for example, that UW-Madison has deemed a textbook rental program an unworthy pursuit. Unlike some other UW System schools, UW-Madison does not own its own bookstore, and the upfront capital costs of purchasing enough textbooks, finding adequate storage space and hiring and training a staff to execute the project would be astronomical. The risk would be far too high.
A book swap system could be a good alternative, though, and could be an effective way for UW students to cut out the middlemen — most notably, the University Book Store and the Underground Textbook Exchange, which make untold profits every semester simply transferring used books from one student to another.
The UW-Madison report cites a number of student-driven initiatives that have already seen some success, including Exchangehut.com and a textbook swap run by Polygon, the College of Engineering's student organization. According to the report, the Associated Students of Madison is talking with Polygon and considering implementing its program at other schools and colleges within UW-Madison. We are often critical and skeptical of ASM endeavors, but we think this would be a good project for them to take up.
While we wait for that, though, the simplest and easiest of steps to control textbook costs would be for professors to take students' concerns seriously and be more judicious when passing out their required reading list. Many professors group all of the readings for their class into one course packet, which keeps costs considerably lower. Others require students to purchase a dozen books, and then end up assigning only a few pages of reading, doing nobody any favors but the aforementioned bookstores.
According to UW-Madison, a typical freshman will pay more than $700 for textbooks in his or her first year. Recognizing that there are no easy solutions, we are eager to see what the Board of Regents proposes this week. But unless they come up with some unforeseen solution, we will look to ASM and UW professors to take the initiative.