CC, SEAS, and GS students hoping to purchase textbooks before classes began Tuesday were unable to find ISBNs or retail price information for about half of undergraduate courses listed in the Columbia Directory of Classes, according to a recent Spectator analysis.
Failure to provide this information is a violation of Section 112 of federal law Higher Education Opportunity Act, which requires that educational institutions receiving federal funding for financial aid provide textbook price and information for its courses on public directories.
The textbook stipulation aims to encourage "faculty, students, administrators, institutions of higher education, bookstores, distributors, and publishers, to work together to identify ways to decrease the cost of college textbooks and supplemental materials for students."
Providing this information in a timely manner would allow students to anticipate and budget for the cost of course materials, and make it easier to seek cheaper alternatives.
Spectator analyzed 1,355 undergraduate courses offered to CC and SEAS students. 48 percent of CC courses and 42 percent of SEAS courses failed to display textbook information in the Columbia Directory of Classes. Courses that typically do not require textbooks, such as discussion sections, recitations, art and music courses, and programs of individual research were excluded, as were courses offered by any of Columbia's graduate schools.
Among the departments with the lowest percentage of textbook price information provided for their courses are the physics, art history and archaeology, music, and French and romance philology departments, which range from 19 to 28 percent compliance.
Following a Spectator inquiry last Friday into the University's efforts to encourage compliance, the Office of the Provost issued an email reminder to all faculty members stating that textbook information "must be posted online in time to help students choose the courses for which they will register," and that faculty members should use a "tool that has been created within CourseWorks to meet these requirements."
However, course registration has been open to students since last semester, so the reminder comes late in students' course selection process. Some faculty members surveyed also felt that the process of submitting textbook information for their classes is not easy.
"When you have to enter the required textbook information on CourseWorks, there is a certain way you have to do it, and it's very cumbersome," said Susan Boynton, chair of the music department, which was 28 percent compliant. "It's not well designed. It should be possible to simply cut and paste. I remember being really frustrated by it."
Michael Cole, chair of the art history and archaeology department, the second least compliant department, spoke to Spectator prior to the University's email notice yesterday and said that he was not aware that faculty members are required to submit textbook information on CourseWorks. Although Cole was away on sabbatical last spring, University administration failed to notify him of this requirement between his return and the beginning of the semester.
Cole also said that the language of the law is unclear about what exactly constitutes a college textbook. As defined by the Higher Education Opportunity Act, a college textbook is "a textbook or a set of textbooks, used for, or in conjunction with, a course in postsecondary education at an institution of higher education."
"Most of us [faculty] would understand a textbook to be a book written for student readers and meant to be used in a course," Cole said. "A textbook is not just required reading, or a novel There are standard textbooks in the field, and the instructor would have to choose between them, but for most of the courses that are taught in my department, there is no textbook."
The Office of the Provost said in a statement to Spectator Tuesday that its effort to improve textbook price information compliance will be "strengthened in the future by employing new electronic reports designed to support faculty, monitor textbook postings, and produce school- and department-specific data."
"The Provost's Office has partnered with the deans of education and academic affairs throughout the University to strategize on the best ways to support faculty in fulfilling requirements to provide textbook information to students in a timely way," the statement said.