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The cost of college textbooks has become a hot political issue.

Pressure from state legislators is pushing publishing companies to offer cheaper alternatives, including college textbooks with fewer illustrations and graphics, online textbooks, and used college textbooks. California lawmakers have sent Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a bill that encourages colleges to start renting textbooks to students and caps textbook rental fees at 50 percent of the cost of buying the textbooks. Last month, a congressional hearing on the matter prompted a request for the Government Accountability Office to investigate why college textbooks are so expensive.

The prices charged by college textbook publishers have risen 21 percent in the past three years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Producer Price Index. By comparison, prices charged by publishers of all books rose 12 percent in the same period. Students generally pay between $650 and $900 for college textbooks each year, according to studies by market observers and student advocacy groups.

Publishers have come under attack for issuing unnecessary new editions of college textbooks that offer few changes and make older, less-expensive editions obsolete. They also have been criticized for selling textbooks packaged with unnecessary CD-ROMs and workbooks.

Major publishers claim they are offering more lower-priced alternatives than ever. They state that the updated editions of college textbooks are needed to maintain relevancy, and that every effort is being made to ensure that students have options if they do not wish to buy bundled materials along with their textbooks. However, publishers are reluctant to support the market for used textbooks as used textbooks are seen by publishers as undermining demand for more expensive new textbooks.

The adoption of digital textbooks has been modest because students are accustomed to using hardcover textbooks, and for digital books to take off, they will need to be seen as providing advantages over hardcovers, and it's unclear whether that will happen. Unlike used college textbooks, digital college textbooks cannot be resold. Digital textbooks are an apt example of why the majority of students continue to shell out for new and used textbooks at college bookstores. A 2002 survey by the National Association of College Stores found that 88 percent of students still buy their new and used college textbooks at college bookstores. However as more and more students discover the amazing savings online, the lines at the campus bookstores will be a thing of the past.