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Textbooks built to fit student budgets

Schools, nonprofits, and publishers go digital in an effort to create less-expensive textbooks.

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Kevin Hegarty knows firsthand about the high cost of textbooks.

His older son, now in law school at the University of Texas, paid almost $600 for books this semester. His younger son, a junior at Texas majoring in business, paid nearly $900.

College students have long complained about the high cost of books, but recently they’ve had good reason: The cost has risen twice as fast as inflation, nearly tripling in the two decades from 1996 to 2005, according to a US government study.

To be fair, textbooks today are more elaborate than in the past, often containing workbooks and CDs with additional content. Publishers also are testing the waters of digital delivery, creating products that can be accessed online, including videos, simulated laboratory experiments, and other materials that stretch the meaning of the word “textbook.”

In addition, colleges are beginning to experiment with what’s possible in a digital age. Beginning next semester, the University of Texas will provide 1,000 students with free digital textbooks for up to two years in a partnership with publisher John Wiley & Sons Inc. Students will be able to access the books online or as files downloaded to their laptops, says Mr. Hegarty, a vice president and chief financial officer at the university, who spearheaded the agreement.

If all goes well, digital textbooks eventually will be offered to all of the school’s roughly 50,000 students for a nominal fee. Many printed textbooks today cost more than $100 apiece. Even at $40 or $45 per digital copy, Hegarty says, students could see substantial savings. For those who prefer to read (and take notes) on paper, the school expects to offer inexpensive printed versions, perhaps loose-leaf and spiral bound.

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