New federal mandate requires early access to textbook information

Sept. 14, 2010, 2:06 a.m.
New federal mandate requires early access to textbook information
(File/The Stanford Daily)

As a result of a newly enacted federal mandate, textbook prices — and the sticker shock that often accompanies them — will be available to all students as soon as registration opens, ideally allowing for students to make financially informed decisions about textbook purchases before the bookstore even stocks its shelves.

Stanford and all other American universities are now required to provide relevant textbook information — especially book prices, editions and International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) — for courses at the time of registration, in accordance with the Higher Education Opportunity Act, a law that took effect on July 1.

To comply, the University registrar teamed up with the Stanford Bookstore to collect textbook information from professors and provide students with open access to the information by Aug. 1, the registration opening date for fall quarter. As recently as Friday, however, not all courses had textbook information available.

“We had about 62 percent of the adoptions [textbook information] on Aug. 1, which is very comparable to last year,” said bookstore director Janet Gawley. “As of [Friday], we have approximately 91 percent of all adoptions.”

Gawley said that although the bookstore tried to collect information before professors finished spring quarter, many professors are hard to reach during summer quarter, accounting for the low rate of information on Aug. 1. She added that while getting the rest of the textbook information for students is “a daily battle at this point,” August gets “a lot of activity” and information flows in faster as the school year approaches.

The textbook information is available online to students via Axess. When searching for courses, students can click on the “Stanford Bookstore” link in the course listing and be directed to a window with textbook information for the course.

Although Axess is the medium through which students ultimately register for courses, other means of exploring courses do not provide the same help. Comparably comprehensive textbook information is not accessible through the Stanford Bookstore’s commercial website, Stanford’s Explore Courses or the online bulletin. Assistant University Registrar Steven Shirreffs added in an e-mail to The Daily that there are “no plans at this point to add syllabus information to Explore Courses.”

“The Registrar’s Office created an interface between Axess and the Stanford Bookstore (eFollett),” Shirreffs said. “We asked departments and faculty to submit textbook information by May 24th in order to facilitate passing this information to the bookstore and to assist the bookstore to obtain best possible pricing on textbooks.”

The only expense to Stanford was the cost of creating the interface, he said.

Gawley said that an early deadline for textbook information from professors allows the bookstore to get the best possible prices on used textbooks for students.

For students, the new textbook information location is a convenience that, while helpful, hasn’t been well advertised.

“I hadn’t heard about the new mandate,” said Yashraj Narang ’11, who said he usually buys his textbooks online for a better price by finding the information from sources like “If I knew this information was [on Axess], that’d probably be a lot easier.”

Although the mandate’s goal is to provide students with information so they can make textbook purchases from any provider, Gawley doesn’t think the mandate will affect bookstore sales.

“Students are pretty savvy,” she said. “If they wanted the book information, they’d seek it out and find it. We don’t look at it as a loss of money.”

The bookstore traditionally is the organization that collects textbook information from professors, but, as Gawley said, the law places the responsibility for compliance with the new mandate on the University registrar. In the end, though, both the bookstore and the registrar agree that the professors are the ones who have control over the information.

“This all works on what we obtain from the instructors,” Gawley said.

“Although we strongly encouraged faculty to submit textbook information in a timely fashion using the new resources, the responsibility to comply in the end rests with them,” Shirreffs said.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act stipulates other cost-cutting requirements, such as selling bundled textbooks as separate items, and emphasizing transparency between publishers and professors when discussing textbook prices.

Ellen Huet is currently a senior staff writer at The Daily; she joined the staff in fall 2008 and served one volume as managing news editor in fall and early winter of 2010-2011. Reach her at ehuet at stanford dot edu. Fan mail and sternly worded complaints are equally welcome.

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