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This legislative session, the General Assembly is once again considering a bill that would designate a tax-free holiday period on textbook sales to alleviate students' financial burden. It's a promising idea, but it's not the first time one has been suggested in this state — the original tax-free textbook legislation first arose in 1998.
Fourteen years later, a lot has changed in the higher education industry. The cost of tuition has increased substantially, along with escalating textbook prices. This has all taken place while, at least in recent years, the economy has faltered and then struggled to regain strength. One thing that hasn't changed? You guessed it: The oft-discussed tax-free textbook legislation still has yet to pass.
It's no surprise that textbooks often break struggling students' bank accounts. According to the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, the average student at this university spends more than $1,000 a year on textbooks. Since 1994, those prices have increased at four times the inflation rate. It's a trend that is unsustainable for students, given the concurrent increase in tuition and fees. The General Assembly will likely pass a 3 percent tuition hike this legislation session. The university is also in the midst of raising its own figures for next year — students will likely pay $130 more for the standard meal plan, $200 more for on-campus housing and 5 percent more for parking permits. All together, the last thing students need to tack on is a $1,000 receipt for textbooks.
The tax-free legislation — which would mandate no sales tax for textbooks purchased in this state by part- or full-time students attending in-state schools, as long as a legitimate student ID is used — would at least do a little to help. But every year, the same reason stops legislators from passing it — it would cost the state millions of dollars. In 1998, the price tag for this legislation was estimated to be $5.3 million. Considering the rise in textbook prices since then and the increase in the number of students attending college, it would no doubt be even more expensive in 2012.
Which is why, quite frankly, legislators need to piss or get off the pot. It's encouraging that some lawmakers at least make an effort each year to tackle the ridiculous costs of textbooks, but after more than a decade of discussion, it's starting to feel like lip service. Fact is, there are other feasible steps legislators can take to help students deal with textbook prices. Maybe a new discussion is exactly what they need to get some momentum.
Just look at Washington state, for example. The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges recently launched the Open Course Library — a collection of textbooks, syllabi, readings and assignments — that costs less than $30 a student and is available online under an open license. According to the Student Public Interest Research Groups, which did a cost-benefit analysis of this program in October, the library will save students in the 42 participating courses $1.26 million this academic year alone.
The project is set to expand to 81 participating courses next year. Once every course is included, the savings could climb to $41.6 million annually if every instructor in the state used the material, the cost-benefit analysis found. According to Nicole Allen, Textbook Advocate for Student PIRGs, "This innovative program took a relatively small one-time investment and turned it into a money-saving solution that will pay off big for many years to come."
The benefits of such a system in this state are enormous. It would no doubt be an investment to develop these open-access course materials, but that's at least better than spending a 15th year debating tax-free holiday legislation, right?
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