Textbook costs high at Dartmouth and in Ivy League

by Joseph C. Scott | 5/7/98 5:00am

Take your pick: a term's worth of books or 60 orders of EBAs' breadsticks. If you plan to pass, books are your best pick, but either way, you're spending about the same amount of money.

Starting next year, the College will budget $230 a term per student for book prices when figuring the total cost of education, according to Director of Financial Aid Ginny Hazen.

Many students say the prices at the two local bookstores are just too expensive. But complaints about book prices can be heard throughout the Ivy League.

At Cornell University, "in general, people complain about prices," Managing Editor of the Cornell Daily Sun Barbara Brody said.

"It's an issue," Columbia University student Matthew Rascoff said about bookstore prices at Columbia University.

He said a contingent of Columbia students went to Albany, N.Y., to lobby for reduced taxes on textbooks in New York City. The students were successful, and now pay no taxes on textbooks.

Rascoff said Columbia students mainly purchase books at Columbia's official bookstore and the unaffiliated Labyrinth Bookstore.

Harvard University student Rich Burnes said there are "roughly seven or eight" bookstores in the Harvard Square area, including the "primary bookstore" -- the Harvard University-affiliated "Coop bookstore" -- and the independently-owned Harvard Bookstore.

Dartmouth's location in a small town with only two bookstores -- the Dartmouth Bookstore and Wheelock Books -- is a particular disadvantage to students.

Book prices are similar at the bookstores of Columbia, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University because the Barnes & Noble bookstore corporation operates those institutions' bookstores. All these stores subtract four percent from the cover price of new books.

Due to the variety of book offerings, it is difficult to compare the Dartmouth Bookstore's prices with those at bookstores at other Ivies. But the Dartmouth Bookstore does make a greater profit off each book than the stores Barnes & Noble operates.

The breakdown

At Barnes & Noble bookstores, 66 percent of a new textbook's price goes to the publisher to cover printing, marketing, taxes and profit.

The remaining money is divided between the author, who receives 10 percent, the affiliated university, which receives eight percent and the bookstore itself to cover taxes, repairs, maintenance and profit. Three percent of the price covers freight costs.

At the Dartmouth Bookstore, 62 percent of the cover price of a new textbook goes to the publisher. Eleven percent goes to the author and one percent goes to freight expenses. The remaining 26 percent goes to the store.

At Barnes & Noble bookstores, the store's pre-tax profit is less than 3 percent while at the Dartmouth Bookstore, it is 4.7 percent. In addition, the independently-owned Dartmouth Bookstore does not give any money to the College, unlike the Barnes & Noble-operated bookstores.

Wheelock Books, started in 1992 by Whit Spaulding '89 and Matt Holleran '89, bills itself as a cheaper alternative to the Dartmouth Bookstore, but usually does not carry books for every class.

Used book policies are generally the same at all Ivy League bookstores. The stores take 25 percent off the cover price for a used book.

Students reluctantly shelling out cash for new books often become more frustrated when they try to sell them back and receive only a small fraction of what they paid.

"You pay like $50 for [a book] and they'll buy it back for five dollars. Next term, when someone buys it, it's up to $30," Brody said about the buy-back situation at Cornell.

Buy-back policies differ between the Barnes & Noble stores and those not affiliated with the corporation.

At Columbia, for instance, the bookstore has year-round buy-back of books. Students receive 50 percent of the current market value of a book, according to the Barnes & Noble web site.

The Cornell bookstore will pay a student 50 percent of the new retail price of a textbook, even if it was purchased used, but it "depends on if the book is being picked up for the following semester," a Cornell Campus Store employee said.

If the book is not being used the next term, the Cornell store will pay the student an amount determined by a used book company, ranging from nothing to 40 percent.

At the Dartmouth Bookstore, buy-back only occurs at the beginning and end of each term. If the book will be used the following term, the store pays the student 50 percent of the current retail price. However, only about 10 percent to 15 percent of

the titles from one term are used again the following term, according to the store's web site.

If a book is not being used the next term, the Dartmouth Bookstore may pay for it according to the market value of the book in its used condition. Otherwise, they will not buy the book back.

The book prize

Since Dartmouth students take only three classes a term, one would think books would not be too expensive. However, many College courses require a substantial number of books.

"Each term, the prize [for most books] always goes to Professor Don Pease's English 52 class," Ed Leavitt of the Dartmouth Bookstore said. The class, a study of American Drama, has 23 books on the list this term.

Leavitt said Education 55, Adolescent Development, taught this term by Professor Nona Lyons, has 36 books on the list, but only four or five are required for the course.

In addition to the large number of required books, many students feel the textbooks are too expensive. Also, the bookstores' buy-back policies seem to have very low returns.

"I'm not thrilled about the price," Pease's student Jessica Webster '01 said. "But they're books people want to keep."

Webster said she spent "at least $170" on the books for the English class.

Webster said the class will read all but one of the books they purchased, because one book had been ordered by accident.

In addition, she had to spend almost $100 on books for a biology class, and $27 for a psychology class.

John Daly '00 said he thinks the book prices at the Dartmouth Bookstore and Wheelock Books are fair.

"They could charge a little less for the used books, though," since some of the used books the stores sell are "messed up," Daly said.

Students can try to avoid the bookstores all together by making deals on their own using Book Exchange, a Dartmouth College Information System program that allows College students to electronically post books they have for sale on a bulletin board.

But few students have heard about the program. Of those students who had heard of the program, even less have used it.

"A friend of mine used it to buy a book, but I have no idea how or what [Book Exchange] is," Webster said.

Daly said he had heard of the program, but he had not used it.

An alternative to the current Book Exchange will be available later this term. The Student Assembly is developing a web-based listing of books for sale, said Tony Perry '99, who is in charge of the project.

Perry and other students are working on finding a third party web corporation to support the site, as well as seeking approval from the College, he said.

Once this is done, the students will begin advertising the site, Perry said, in an attempt to make this option more publicized than the current DCIS exchange program.

"We'll want to make sure people know about it," he said. "We want to get it working this term so people can start using it as soon as possible."