Is ANY university complying with the new textbook law?

1 09 2010

Ian Ayres at Freakonomics reports on a real game changer as far as college operations go. Apparently, this is now the law of the land:

The key textbook provision (sec. 133(d)) of the Higher Education Opportunity Act mandates that schools disclose:

“on the institution’s Internet course schedule and in a manner of the institution’s choosing, the International Standard Book Number and retail price information of required and recommended college textbooks and supplemental materials for each course listed in the institution’s course schedule …”

His post is entitled, “Is Your University Complying With the New Textbook Law?” to which my immediate reaction would be “Is ANY university complying with the new textbook law?” Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s a great idea, but I would have expected proffies everywhere to have screamed bloody murder about this long before it was actually implemented.

I count two reasons for a potential riot in Ayres’ post. First:

Students might start choosing courses in part based on the cost of course books. And professors who want to teach larger classes might feel some added pressure to assign cheaper books. (Of course, profs who want fewer exams to grade might have a perverse incentive to assign higher-priced books.)


The new law helps here because some institutions are choosing to fulfill the requirement of secondary disclosure “in a manner of the institution’s choosing” by asking professors to add the required cost and ISBN information to their course syllabuses. For the first time, some professors will have to confront the marginal price of taking their course during the very process of creating their course syllabuses.

That’s a nice thought, but aren’t our syllabi long enough? Furthermore, if you don’t get the syllabus until first day, isn’t that too late? Online sounds better to me.

Another potential sore spot with professors would be the need to order the next semester’s books ever-earlier. We get our spring order forms in September and they’re due in October. Nevertheless, I have one colleague who refuses on principle to put their orders in until just a few weeks before the semester starts and nobody ever calls them out on it.

The main reason to support the law is obvious: cheaper prices for students. Whether they buy on the Internet or not, the competition ought to send textbook prices downward. I, however, have an additional reason to favor it. I want to know how much reading my colleagues are assigning as a check against lazy teachers. Until I can get online access to everybody’s syllabus, this would be the next best thing.



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