Harass the university; demand lower textbook prices

By Dan Rahrig

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Every semester starts out the same way. During the first week of classes, thousands of students flock to the Textbook Annex to shell out hundreds and hundreds of dollars for overpriced books that they may or may not end up needing for the courses they are taking. Nobody likes having to pay such hefty sums for their course materials on top of all the other exorbitant expenses of going to college, but what choice do we have?

It is true that textbooks are going to be expensive no matter what, but the prices the annex charges every year are outrageous. Someone buying all of their textbooks from the annex could find themselves spending hundreds more than they would have to online or even in some bookstores.

But the fact of the matter is, sometimes UMass students are left with no choice. Most of us know to get textbooks online in advance, but not all of the required course materials are listed on the annex’s website. Those that are listed can usually be found much cheaper on sites like Amazon or eBay (I paid $80 for the books I need for my civil liberties class online, compared to the $120 being asked for at the annex), but oftentimes a student does not find out all the books he or she needs until the first week of classes. By then, of course, buying cheap books online is much more inconvenient – it can take weeks for your order to arrive at your dorm, but professors usually expect you to have your books for the next class. Amherst Books or Food for Thought Books may carry the textbook you need, but only if your professor has notified one of these stores in advance. Since this is often not the case, and since we do not want to fall behind or get off to a bad start with the semester, we are forced to face the inflated prices at the annex.

So why are their prices so obscene? Because the annex and the school’s University Store are run by the Follett Corporation, a for-profit wholesale distributor that has a lucrative contract with UMass. Within the contract is an “exclusivity clause,” much like the clause in UMass’ controversial contract with Coca-Cola, which gives the company monopolistic control over the on-campus textbook market. Because of the lack of the competition, Follett is able to mark up book prices by an average of roughly 30 percent, according to Student Government Association Senator Brandon Tower who launched an online group demanding the University to lower textbook prices. We students begrudgingly pay that markup. The University is not opposed to these high prices, of course, because they receive a percentage of the sales. Then, once they have made tens of thousands of dollars from textbook sales, the University offers to buy back our books at the end of the semester for a fraction of what they are worth so they can sell them again the following year for the same unfair prices we paid the first time.

Students have tried to fight against this system in the past, asking professors and the administration to notify students in advance of books they need for their classes, but such requests have been ignored. More recently, there has been a push to start a student-run business that would provide fairly-priced course materials, but this, too, was rejected because of the exclusive contract with Follett.

In response to the University’s refusal to allow a student-run competitor to the annex, an online movement began to lobby the administration in anticipation for renegotiation of its Follett contract. The crusade, spearheaded by Tower, already gained the support of over 2,200 students through a Facebook group called “UMass will lower textbook prices; we the students demand it.” The administration agreed to allow student representation in their upcoming negotiations. Though it is doubtful that such representation will translate into the signing of a less unfair contract, it is a promising start. Tower and supporters of the movement hope to make enough noise to persuade the University to remove its exclusivity clause from any future contract, or to at least get an exemption for a student-run business.

Though lofty, this goal is not entirely out of reach. Tower and his supporters are not trying to put the annex out of business or hurt the University; they are simply fighting to create competition in the on-campus textbook market. Such competition could be hugely beneficial to the students of UMass, providing them with an affordable alternative to the annex without the inconvenience and hassle of ordering books online. But in order for any progress to be made, we all have to do our part to get UMass to see our side, and that will require us to get involved and make our grievances known. If you’re tired of being ripped off, make a phone call or send an e-mail – let the administration know you’re fed up. If we make enough noise and persist in our efforts, we could finally be able to buy cheaper books right here on campus – and that’s something worth fighting for.

Dan Rahrig is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]