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.


Harvard isn't really in compliance either. About half of the courses contain ISBNs on their individual website, but many do not.

Imad Qureshi

This is great first step. But I am wondering why free market didn't do it on its own? Why does government have to step in? Not letting publishers capitalize is socialism.


I always let my students know they have lower cost options than buying the textbook I use ($165 new in the univ bookstore, and it churns every 2 years.) I also provide page numbers for the readings in older editions.

But the biggest surprise this summer was discovering the opportunity to rent it from the publisher for $7.50 a chapter as a downloadable pdf with an expiration script that disables it after 6 months. I'm watching the warez sites for online copies that have been cracked.


Greg said, "Pay the author and publisher for each time the book is used, then the costs of the first time use can go down."

Unfortunately, the evidences from the publishers do not bear this out. Some text books have become available in online version for rent for a few years now. I sampled several and find that they are priced around 50% of the new hard back physical edition. However, they are usually time limited to 1 semester or 1 year.

Let's do a usage comparsion. Assume a text book that does not churn and get a new edition with substantive updates every 4 years. If it is resold every semester, 8 student would have use of it over its useful live. If the online edition has a 1 year life, then it can serve 2 students at most (though that might be a license violation). At half the price of the physical book, this online edition now costs DOUBLE the price of the physical edition per student-semester. If the edition was limited to 1 semseter, it'd be FOUR time the physical edition.

In sum, when the publisher went to 'per use' model, they increased the price 2 to 4 times while they decreased their printing and distribution costs by 10-20%.

"serious inefficiency" indeed.

How can we close the loop so that the chooser (professor) will bear some costs for the texts they choose?

How can we prevent professors from choosing texts authored by themselves which are not necessarily better than cheaper alternates?



The bigger question is why textbooks are still being used in the digital age?


You could just not make the text book mandatory have it as a supplemental.


The University of Chicago is, I guess, technically in compliance. They provide a link to the university book store with the required books (and ISBN and prices) listed. But they also list "recommended" materials that aren't required for the course. Unless you are paying attention, these recommended materials could easily be mistaken for required books.

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

eBooks are more sustainable.

Imagine an iPad at 5 lbs with every single book of every class you took in college. Finger highlighting, typed notation, and automatic wireless updates and corrections, video and photo augmentation, web links, easy link to a dictionary, encyclopedia, wikipedia, spell checker, graphing calulator, and email.

Save the trees.

Alex in Chicago

Imad, the problem is that the consumers don't have free choice.

If professors were given X dollars per student for books and got to keep the excess you can bet that book prices would drop dramatically.

Steve S.

Why don't professors go out of their way to assign books that are 1 or 2 editions "old". The price differences between the past vs current editions are often drastically different. If the content of both books are fundamentally the same this practice should be a no brainer.

I am three years out of college and I can remember various times when a prof. would reassure us on the first day that selected "older" editions would be fine. Coincidentally, those were my favorite professors!


While searching for a class on PeopleSoft, I saw "Link for Textbook Lookup" which takes me to my university bookstore's homepage. Then I can find a link to a page to enter term, department, course and section # and add the class to my cart, after which it will show me the new and used price available.
(University of Houston)

Also, many professors tell us that it is okay to get the old edition. Some even go so far as reference both editions for all students. Increasingly I am seeing graduate professors finding us a free, online copy of the book, making copies for each student, or telling us to get the older edition to help us out.


The University of North Carolina lists all books with their prices and ISBN on a textbook lookup page. This is a separate page from their master schedule, but still easy to find. You can search by class info, ISBN, or book information.

Here's the link but you need to have a student login to view it.

HL Parra

College texts should be published in the cheapest and most environmentally friendly form possible. How many times do do graduates go back to examine their old college texts? The real world does not run with the college textbooks as the guide. They are usually disposed of promptly after course completion or sit on dusty shelves to eventually wind up at landfills. In other words they (college text book publishers) should be pushed by student and educators demand, not college bookstores or government to make most texts printed on the cheapest papers, being recycled paper if possible and in cheaper paperbacks format, just like the international kind. College texts in truth, probably in majority need to be of disposable quality. I believe it is time indeed for technology to step up to bat and truly began replacing printed matter more. I assure you that the finest teachers ever seen, dating back to ancient times until recently did not have the the luxury of texts books for everyone they taught and learning did occur quite well. College professors either write or are helping to write the books, so they can easily provide all the discourse they may wish to provide their students through modern technological means.


Matt C.

UNC has been giving the ISBN out since I arrived here (2008). Some professors still take a while to put their books online, though.


Just go to class. Odds are you won't need the book anyway.


@Katie Saville

Is the cost of "renting" higher than the cost of buying the book, then returning it at the end of the year? I bet it is.

Then again, it may not to worth being out hundreds of dollars for a semester to save a few a few bucks in the end if you're a poor college student.


I dunno, man. This might be an elite school thing. Here at Ohio State, the profs sure as heck know how much the books cost, because students will straight up tell them if they don't know.

And the law probably won't do anything for us. Anyone who's price sensitive buys waaay cheaper online anyway.


My law school is complying with this. A couple of my professors are taking students into consideration by making readers with selected cases that way we won't have to purchase books for the course, just pay for the copies to make the readers.

I do have one professor who requires a book that changes editions every year. For the fall, this was problematic because the book wasn't even available until the week right before school and was only offered by the school and the publisher. However, my professor did note the 2009 edition page numbers with it.

I spent $600 in books this semester. I knew a student who spend $1000.

I tend to prefer NEW books for law school because i highlight and write in the margins like a mad woman. Also, buying used books on the internet has been problematic for me as students who are selling their books are falsely advertising the condition of their books.

In any event, I'd much rather purchase from Amazon or Barnes and Noble, even if my savings only add up to $100. Thats 25 lattes worth of savings.



I am required to have a book, which is written by the author himself, that is 23pgs more than his previous edition. Seriously? I imagine the 23pgs of new material is fluff, but what if I don't buy it and that fluff determines the difference in an A or a B? This is the decision I'm faced with. Oivey.

Marty Stern

Ohio U does a good job, so long as it is not a custom packet, nor do they mention (as some profs will admit on day one), if any, old editions are acceptable.
To counter publishers have enabled teachers to custom make a book, selecting specific chapters from books and delivering them as an e-book. As my prof says:

I have created a custom text for this class using McGraw-Hill's new Create website. You can purchase the text, which is QUITE a bit cheaper than using a standard text, directly from them. I am not planning to order the text through the bookstores at this time--why pay the middleman fees??

Our price $51 (delivered to my Inbox), the text it's from is over 3x more.