Friday, February 8, 2008

Math in the Media - The Price of Higher Ed 2

As a follow up to the last post, the Washington Post this morning contained an article detailing current legislation pending in Congress (passed by the House actually) that addresses many of the costs associated with higher education. While the main thrust of the College Opportunity and Affordability Act is to provide more aid for students of need to attend college, there are provisions in the bill designed to dampen textbook prices.

For instance, forcing publishers to state the price of a textbook up front when promoting a book to a professor for possible use in the classroom (this is not often done currently). And ending the practice of packaging textbooks with tons of rather useless addons which are typically not used in the course and are almost always of little or no value (think of that CD you never touched attached to the inside back cover of your calculus text (well, at least not our book for 108-109)).

A similar bill has also passed the Senate, and now the reconciliation between the two must begin. It is also said in the article that the White House opposes the bill. No threat of a veto, but Bush wuill seek changes before he signs.

I believe it is a good thing that Congress is paying attention. Let's also hope the publishers are....


Anonymous said...

I think the math department should refrain from adapting new editions unless there is a compelling reason. If the departments adapted such a policy, students could save a lot amounts of money.

For example, the 3rd edition of "Vector Calculus", the textbook for Honors Calc 3, costs $125 new. However, the second edition only costs $5 used.

Textbook publishers come out with new editions every 2-4 years. Often, the change they make is renumbering the exercises so students can't use an, older substantially cheaper edition.

The math department should do students a favor by resisting the temptation to require the latest edition

Richard Brown said...

You are correct in that the book we use in the Honors version of multivariable Calculus is on a four year schedule (1998, 2002 and 2006), and that in many cases, the changes are minimal (I have not seen the 2nd edition in this case). And with 20 students in a class this semester, it may actually be feasible to let students use the previous version.

However, there are a few things that may become troublesome:

First, forcing all students to use a previous version runs into supply shortages when the class is large or after a few years when there aren't that many previous versionsin circulation. Think that if suddenly a previous version were the one you must use, then demand would be great and supply limited, if existent. The previous version book price would skyrocket no?

In contrast, allowing multiple versions in the same classroom can (and would) be a nightmare for class organization in general. Do a thought experiment with you as the professor; Making sure section numbers match, exercises match, sectional additions/deletions are consistent with the course aims, etc.

On the other hand, publishers are getting a LOT of heat now from us institutions based on these kind of practices, and we in the math department are taking these issues into consideration when choosing textbooks. For example, our choice of the textbook for 108 and 109 was made with price in mind (along with other criteria which made the selection quite a strong one, in our minds). We like the Colley book, and will continue to judge the book with this as one of the criteria. Whether it becomes a deciding factor is not clear yet. But not only do we hear you, we are listening to you also.

Thank you much for this opinion.