A substantial number of courses in Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science appear to be in violation of a federal law that requires universities to provide the price of textbooks for all classes offered during registration.
Making this information accessible gives students the opportunity to account for the potential financial burden of classes in their registration decisions.
The Higher Education Opportunities Act states that any institute of higher education receiving federal funding for financial aid must "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 ... for preregistration and registration purposes."
A Spectator analysis of the spring 2015 undergraduate courses in the 10 most popular majors showed that over 65 percent of classes did not display textbook information on the publicly available course directory. Spectator used the degrees conferred to the Columbia College and SEAS classes of 2014 to determine the most popular majors.
Columbia University Information Technology created a field on CourseWorks in 2010 to allow professors to input price information so that it is publicly available on the course directory for students during registration. However, many professors opt instead to list textbook information on syllabi uploaded as files on CourseWorks. In these cases, the price information is only available once students are registered for the course.
Professors who do not require textbooks for a particular course can also use the textbook field to indicate as much, but an overwhelming number of professors simply do not edit the field at all, making it unclear whether courses even require textbooks.
According to a 2013 report published by the Government Accountability Office, textbook costs have risen at an average of 6 percent per year between 2002 and 2012.
Some of the unlisted textbooks for popular courses offered in the spring 2015 semester, including two sections of Principles of Economics, the Science of Psychology, and General Chemistry I, range in price from $150 to $285.
Uncertainty surrounding course costs can prove problematic for students who may have to weigh the cost of a textbook with the value of taking a class, according to Mandeep Singh, CC '15.
"If you're a student that really can't afford, like, $250 for one book, and let's say you have at least two of those classes with such an expensive book, you're looking at more than $500 for books in one semester, right?" Singh said. "So you really start weighing out, 'Should I be this major? The books are too expensive. Should I really take this class now?'"
Singh said that having access to textbook information before registration allows students to look into alternative options, including searching for free versions online and locating used versions. Singh is a member of the First-Generation, Low-Income Partnership group, which began offering a textbook sharing service this semester.
"Knowing beforehand is really, really crucial because, as you know, even getting into classes—it's the Hunger Games sometimes," Singh said. "Let's say you get into the class, you finally get into the class and ... you can't afford the book. That's like, 'Oh crap! Now what do I do?'"
At Barnard, professors are sent a reminder to input textbook prices before the beginning of the semester, according to Christian Rojas, the chair of Barnard's chemistry department. However, some professors feel that one reminder isn't sufficient to spur compliance.
"People have other things to do with their lives," Barnard history professor Herbert Sloan said. "If they're not being constantly reminded, this may not be right there at the top of the list of to-do things."
"It's not something I'm always conscious of," Columbia economics professor Brendan O'Flaherty said. "I've talked to students about textbooks a lot. I've never had anyone tell me they made a decision on a course based on the textbook."
The Office of the Provost and CUIT declined to comment.
Graphic by Jenna Beers.
A version of this article is published in print on Jan. 22.