An ad campaign for a certain textbook publisher will appear on California State University campuses this spring in the form of memos to faculty, notices in student newspapers, and posters at bookstore counters.
But the promotional messages won't come from the publisher, Cengage Learning, which sells nearly a quarter million textbooks to CSU students each year. They'll come from the university itself.
The odd new role for CSU administrators - promoting a company's products over the next three years - turns out to be the university's perhaps innovative way of addressing one of higher education's most vexing dilemmas: sky-high textbook prices.
In exchange for putting the name "Cengage" in front of textbook consumers at the nation's largest university system, the company will rent its electronic textbooks for 60 percent off the hard-copy price - about a 10 percent drop from what students are now charged for temporary access to e-books.
The university and the company see the deal as benefiting them both: publishers can expand their growing e-book market. Professors like the features of e-books that make their lives easier, and students get a price break.
Students typically pay upward of $1,000 a year for books, whose rising prices outpace the median household income and tuition itself, a 2008 state audit found.
When the agreement kicks in next fall, students who pay $166.49 for "Human Biology, 9th Edition" in paperback could rent the electronic version online for $66.60. Access expires after 180 days, but students could print out pages. The rental currently costs $78.49.
"We'll market those to faculty and students so they're aware that these are the type of books that can save students money," said Gerry Hanley, head of Academic Technology Services for CSU. "If faculty don't know about them, they won't assign them. So the first step is raising the visibility and getting faculty members to understand the new capabilities" of electronic texts.
The current generation of e-texts doesn't yet have all the whiz-bang features in the pipeline - links to homework and quizzes with instant grading, for example. But it lets students highlight text, said Bill Riedes, a Cengage executive who added that the company's digital market has soared more than 30 percent in two years and represents nearly a quarter of its sales.
The agreement with CSU raises questions about whether a university should promote one publisher's books over another. But faculty leaders say no one would force them to choose Cengage, and they like having another way to help students pay less.
"As long as it's one option, I'm OK with it," said Jim Postma, chairman of the Academic Senate at CSU and a chemistry professor at Chico State.
Free books for all
Dean Florez is less pleased. The former majority leader of the California Senate now heads the 20 Million Minds Foundation, which advocates making college textbooks available online for free.
"If CSU is marketing to faculty, they ought to not just give them the publishers' books, but also the free and open-source books," he said, referring to instructional materials that can be accessed by anyone on the web.
Florez acknowledged that high-quality, free e-books aren't widely available yet, although some exist. He pointed to a pair of bills, SB1052 and 1053, by Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, that could address the problem by creating the California Digital Open Source Library.
Under the bills, the Legislature would authorize $25 million to produce 50 rigorous electronic texts for the 50 most popular lower-division courses. The texts would be written by faculty and made available for free on the Internet.
Florez praised the bills at a recent hearing on textbooks in Sacramento. Currently, taxpayers subsidize the purchase of increasingly expensive texts for low-income college students through the Cal Grant B.
He said that fund might instead be used to finance the development of the new library of free books.
Meanwhile, CSU's Hanley said the university has advocated free texts for years on its Affordable Learning Solutions website.
Basic and expensive
Yet students like Ginamarie Gianandrea remain frustrated. She enrolled in Spanish 101 at San Francisco State University, then bought a paper workbook required for the basic language course: $150.
"I was really upset when I saw that I had to buy that," said Gianandrea, who is committed to learning Spanish because she plans to work in the Latino community, possibly as lawyer for a nonprofit.
The workbook, "Como Se Dice," by Heinle Learning, came with an online access code and therefore had to be purchased new.
But Heinle is a division of Cengage. So by next fall, the same book in electronic form would rent for about $60 because of the new agreement between the company and CSU.
Even though e-book rentals are typically less expensive than hard-copy purchases, e-books have not been a hit with students. Hanley conducted a pilot study of 3,000 CSU students in 2010 that found only a third of them actually liked using them. A third were neutral, and a third didn't like them at all.
Hanley said students will probably appreciate e-books more as they learn more about them, but Gianandrea isn't so sure.
"I hate them," she said. "I write in my textbooks and very rarely sell them back.