Valley students get help buying college books

College students shouldn't have to dig as deep to pay for textbooks thanks to new federal rules giving them more time to shop around -- and greater access to textbook prices.

The new provisions in the Higher Education Opportunity Act took effect on July 1. In part, they require most colleges and universities to post a per-class list of assigned books and prices with the Internet course schedule, which typically is published months before a semester begins. Publishers also must share textbook prices with faculty.

Experts say the rules should help drive down costs by arming everyone with more information early in the process. Students will have more time to browse online and in person and to consider new, used, rental and other options.

"When they register, they can go to a link and see what textbooks are required," said Michael Guerra, vice president of administrative services at Fresno City College. Guerra, who has responsibility for bookstore operations throughout the multi-campus State Center Community College District, called that "a tremendous advantage to the student."

Students should benefit more in future semesters because registration for the fall opened before the rules took effect.

Yet even when students register for next spring's courses, they probably won't start out with a complete list for every class. That's because faculty members, who are mainly responsible for book selections, aren't always assigned that early. Campuses list "to be determined" for those cases.

At Fresno State, where classes began last week, several students at the bookstore shopped with paper printouts of book lists they pulled off a campus website.

Adrina Shamlian, 20, a junior from Fresno, said she figures to spend $500 to $600 this fall. She bought one science book for about $200 -- fearing the high-demand edition might disappear from shelves. Shamlian, a biology major, said she'll attend a few class sessions before deciding whether to buy some books. She prefers to buy rather than rent -- making comparison shopping even more critical. "It is really, really expensive."

High textbook prices are a common complaint. According to state and national studies, students can spend about $670 to $800 annually on textbooks and course materials.

"One of the most difficult parts of textbook prices is how unpredictable they are," said Nicole Allen, textbook advocate for the California Public Interest Research Group based in Sacramento.

Knowing the books required helps students plan for the expense, she said. Allen also said advocates hope faculty will pick the least expensive option when faced with two books of equal quality.

Michael Botwin, chairman of Fresno State's psychology department, said he doesn't insist on the latest version when an older edition will suffice.

"I make a concerted effort to watch the prices of my textbooks," said Botwin, whose son just spent $350 on books for community college classes.

Bruce Hildebrand is executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, a national trade association based in Washington, D.C. Hildebrand said the association supports the new rules because "transparency is good for everybody."

Charles Schmidt, spokesman for the National Association of College Stores based in Oberlin, Ohio, said campus bookstores should remain competitive even in the new marketplace. Stores have the advantage of location -- along with an online presence -- and remain the likely first stop for consumers, he said. "Students are probably going to be able to save some money, and our stores will hold their own," Schmidt said.