The Book’s the Thing

Federal law increasing ISBN availability serves students

In 2008, Congress passed a federal law that requires Harvard and other publicly funded universities across the country to list both the prices and the International Standard Book Numbers of course textbooks online. Two years later, that law—as part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008—has finally taken effect, representing a commendable victory in the ongoing battle to make higher education more affordable to American students, who should be able to buy books as cheaply as possible.

At Harvard specifically, students can now find the required information on the Harvard COOP’s website, a far cry from the time just three years ago when the COOP called the Cambridge police on three students associated with who wrote down ISBNs in the store. Although the legislation could potentially affect in-person book sales in the Square, we do not see any cause for concern on behalf of the COOP, which is affiliated with Barnes & Noble and is hardly a small, independent bookstore. Besides, many students will likely continue purchasing their books at the COOP, an institution with roots in the Harvard community that reach all the way back to 1882, due to the convenience it offers. Either way, the new law will serve as an aid to students—particularly freshmen—who have yet to master the often overwhelming book-buying process.

In response to the law, certain members of the university community have expressed fear that students will now choose their courses based on book prices—a concern with little weight, as students have always evaluated potential classes using a variety of parameters, and some individuals already choose based on textbook prices. We have no reason to believe that the new law will significantly alter which students select courses based on this particular criterion.

Naturally, several Harvard professors told The Crimson last week that the law was an example of federal overreach. N. Gregory Mankiw, an economics professor and author of a popular textbook required for his introductory economics course, said that he is “skeptical about the federal government micromanaging such decisions.”

James Hankins, a history professor, said flippantly that, “We wait breathlessly for the federal government to prescribe mandatory potty-breaks every 15 minutes during classes.”


But such sentiments ignore the imperative to ensure that education is as affordable to students as possible, especially when textbooks can comprise a huge portion of an education’s overall cost. At community colleges, for instance, textbook costs can amount to 40 percent of a student’s total expenses. And although Harvard textbooks account for nowhere near as much—Ian Ayres, a Yale Law School professor, speculated that the figure is somewhere around five percent—the same principle still applies here in Cambridge, just as it does everywhere else. Even if the legislation has a marginal impact, it is nevertheless a step in the right direction. The federal government should make every effort to break through the very real barriers that still restrict the fruits of education to a privileged few.


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