Is Your University Complying With the New Textbook Law?


University students are returning to campuses throughout the country.? It is a migration that raises my spirits – seeing the energetic, eager faces tackling another course in contracts or intellectual property.

But this year something is different.? For the first time, a?federal law has taken effect which requires “institution[s] of higher education receiving Federal financial assistance” to provide students with information on textbook pricing.? 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 …

Part of the idea behind the law is to give students better information so that they can shop around for a better textbook price.? The mandated disclosure should reduce the monopoly power of the local college bookstore.? Armed with a textbook’s title and ISBN, students can jump on the Internet and search for a retailer with a lower markup.? Knowing the ISBN is key to making sure you have the right textbook, because different editions of the same book will have different numbers.? The law might also shift students toward buying used editions of the same textbook at a fraction of the price.

The disclosure, however, might also promote other dimensions of competition.? 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 responds to several of the problems I wrote about in a 2005 New York Times op-ed, “Just What the Professor Ordered.”? I worried about the high cost of textbooks uncovered in a GAO report:

We’re used to paying $25 for a hardcover novel, but my casebook on contracts now sells to students for $103 . . . . At state universities, textbooks and supplies account for 26 percent of all student fees, including tuition. At junior colleges, they are a whopping 72 percent.

High prices are still a problem.? My contracts casebook is now being?offered on Amazon for $141.67.? In my original article, I blamed poor professorial incentives:

It’s easy for prices to drift upward when the person choosing the product doesn’t really care how much it costs. Instead of competing on price, publishers compete for professors’ attention with an excess of computerized bells and whistles.

But professorial ignorance is also to blame.? I imagine that few of my colleagues could tell you the cost of the textbooks they assign.? 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.

The new law also indirectly takes action against another inefficiency in the market – the scourge of edition churn.? Publishers and authors have a strong incentive to arbitrarily churn out new editions of a textbook even with just minimal changes to kill off competition from used books of the previous edition.? The key to successful edition churn is for the textbook author to change a few pages of material early in the book so that all of the remaining material will appear on different pages.? That way, any student who buys an older edition will literally not be on the same page with the professor and will have a harder time following class discussion and assignments.

The new law contains a gentle nudge which is aimed at making edition churn more embarrassing.? Publishers must provide faculty members (or any “entity in charge of selecting course materials”) with the copyright dates of the three previous edition of the textbook together with a “description of the substantial content revisions made between the current edition of the college textbook or supplemental material and the previous edition, if any.”? (Publishers must also disclose the price at which the book will be available to the bookstore on campus.)? Some publishers are complying with these new mandates by having the preface of new editions clearly describe all “substantial content revisions.”? This new disclosure may serve a useful disciplining function.? The more egregious the edition churn, the harder it will be to document substantial content revisions.? Students may prefer to take on the work of translating pages numbers to an older and cheaper edition of basically the same material.

Is your school complying with the new law?? Take a few minutes and see if you can find the required?Internet course schedule webpage that includes the ISBN and prices for all required and recommended textbooks.? If not, you might email a school administrator a copy of this post and ask if the school is currently in compliance.? Either way, please post comments with the links or with the administrator’s response (and we’ll send some?Freakonomics schwag at random to one of the responders).

I predict that many schools are not yet in compliance.? You can’t sue if your school isn’t providing the required information.? But the Secretary of Education “is?authorized to take administrative action, including the imposition of fines, against institutions that do not comply.”

Stepping back, it’s not clear that all of these disclosure requirements are worth the costs of compliance.? The textbook market has some serious inefficiencies and the industrial organization economist in me can see how the new rules might nudge us toward a better equilibrium.? But I don’t expect seismic changes.


yep go ahead and have them fined, then wait for the next tuition and fees increase to cover the cost of the past fines. they're in business to cover their expenses with little motivation to become more efficient. any effort aimed at forcing them to improve their efficiency results in cries of we can cover our expenses and have to cut effective programs as a result.

Student: PU 2012

I contacted three different administrators at my university after reading the first post about this new law and to this day I have still received no replies - just an uniform silence...maybe its because the university just put a large chunk of cash two years ago into opening a brand new textbook store to which they gave exclusive access to course book lists; the policy is that the bookstore won't put books for courses online till the second week of classes.

Katie Saville

I think this is a great first step towards a more long term solution to this problem. I know as a student returning to graduate school this semester after a three year hiatus from college, that it did in fact seem more opportunities to purchase the books from other venues were being offered. Professors were being more flexible about editions, although cautioning against going too far book. Books are also for the first time in my educational career, for rent from the bookstore, which can significantly decrease the cost to a student for books which they do not have a need to own after the end of the class. It is a problem that certainly needs to be addressed.


When I was in college you could get your textbooks from for a fraction of the prices of, even with the increased shipping. It was a very common practice for 1 or 2 years before they caught onto it.


One of the unintended consequences of trying to hold down the cost of student text books by selling used books acts to actually push the cost of new books higher. When we stop pricing books as an item and instead treat it as intellectual property and pay for each use of the intellectual property, costs for books will continue to rise. Pay the author and publisher for each time the book is used, then the costs of the first time use can go down.


I doubt Hillsdale College will worry about complying, no federal funding!


Montana State seems to be lacking this info - or at least I couldn't find it easily (


With prices so low, how are students supposed to make any bank selling back books at the end of the semester.. Don't regulators understand that's a key income source for students whose parents buy them textbooks at the start of the semester?? How are they supposed to celebrate the end of exams?? What a shame.


My real problem with textbook prices isn't that it makes it hard on students, they can probably afford it if they can afford to go to school, but that it makes it hard for the general public to get a firm grasp on many issues that may be of interest to them but not of sufficient interest for them to be willing to pay for an entire class. Personally, if I want to get grounded in a new subject my first step is to search online for some course syllabi, see which texts are most frequently used, and then buy those texts online. This is fine with some subjects where books are in the 20ish dollar range used, this is much more difficult with others where books are $100 or more. While I am probably in a minority in using this method, I wouldn't be surprised if there is pent up demand for a scholarly introduction to a number of subjects that could be met with a less steep price of entry. Of course, older editions are often available cheaply but it can be difficult to know if you're missing significant changes in the field without the benefit of a professor to let you know if this is the case, a potential pitfall to self-education.



My university does. Students in my class are finding international editions of the text (lower price and in paper back), are finding electronic editions that they can rent, can rent the book locally, and trying to see if an older edition is a substitute. Not sure if this adds to the educational process but it does give them something other than going to bars to do in the days before classes start.


My school seems to have a great system for finding out all textbooks and both new and used costs!

As a professor - meaning I spent many years as a student - I am always very conscious of textbook costs. And I deliberately choose books that are both affordable and good - or I have a really good explanation to students why they are buying an expensive book. And no, I would never use a text book that cost $100 or more; there is always another options that will not bankrupt students!

R C Burke

Lynchburg College makes the price information available to students along with their online schedules, as explained here:

I was shocked to look at the Victorian Lit course I teach and discover that the anthology we're using costs over $100. I guess I'm a good example of the instructor who has blithely ignored the costs of their books. Ah well: at least our copy of VANITY FAIR, a true gem of world literature, costs the students a mere $7.50. It's worth more than nearly any textbook, and at a fraction of the cost.


If the students can all plagiarize with the internet, do we really think they cannot shop with the internet?


Professors readily get review copies. It is upon professors to judge edition-churn. There are deceased authors out there with new editions emerging every couple of years - I suspect churn and I suspect that in the grave the author does turn - and other texts, such as Janeway's immunobiology can barely keep up with new findings. 1999 2001 2004 2007

Alex in Chicago

I did not buy a single book for my last 2 years of undergrad (University of Pittsburgh, Bioengineering). The books were expensive, long-winded, and worthless. Inflating book prices are only a symptom of the real problem with higher education though: subsidies.

Why does every government subsidize universities? Why are there so many student loans? These things drive up demand for College and what we get is rapidly inflating costs along with millions of college grads working as janitors.

LJG, PItt 2011

University of Pittsburgh has been publishing this for years ( As an engineering student, many of our textbooks are for reference, particularly at the upper levels when the professors prefer to write their own questions for homework. The first class usually includes a discussion about the textbook, and why they chose the one they did. They usually also tell us how they're going to use it (problems, reading material, etc) so we can decide to get the actual book or an older or international edition. The biggest differences between editions of recent years is a change in the numbers of problems, and it's easy enough to compare to the text on reserve in the library.


I'm an MIT alum, and just spot-checked one course, Differential Equations. (The textbook was revised in 2008, but the underlying material has not changed substantively in generations.)

The course page has a "Textbook Info" link page which pops up the author, title, edition, ISBN, and price of the textbook ($141.33). This would seem to meet the requirements. Amazon sells it for $104.48 (and 2-day shipping is free for college students). sells it for about US$75, with shipping to the US, barely more than half the listed price, so Josh@4's trick is still not dead.


Drexel University has the books ISBN listed on its book store web site.



I'm a Johns Hopkins grad student and I think they're in compliance or moving in that direction. The system we've used to register for classes has had a textbook link since I started but generally there was no information provided. Starting with this semester though the link was directed to a new website, . That's the generic URL but if you go from the internal system then you get the ISBN, the list price and an e-book option for your class. There's also a little message saying you can order your book from any seller. For the class I looked up the e-book option was also cheaper than the best price I saw on I'm pretty pleased about it. I always ordered my books online and generally needed to go directly to the professor, wasn't a huge deal but this is certainly easier.

Robert Sandor

Yes. The University of Minnesota Law School (and the campus at large I think) complies with the law.