SAN ANTONIO - Many families struggle to pay for college, including the cost of textbooks. News 4 WOAI Trouble Shooter Jaie Avila uncovered secret deals between textbook publishers and colleges that can force students to pay more for books. In some cases, faculty members have received payments for requiring students to buy certain books.
Alamo Colleges prides itself on providing a good education at an affordable price, but even here, students like Rontez Manning face the hurdle of paying for pricey textbooks.
“Some classes have books that are like $300, it's very expensive,” Manning says.
In late 2010, another student at Northwest Vista College complained to administrators that she couldn't afford to stay in Mario Salas's government class, because he was requiring students to purchase four textbooks, three of which were written by Salas himself.
Investigative documents obtained by the Trouble Shooters show Salas had a contract with publisher Kendall-Hunt, and by-passed the usual textbook approval process.
Alamo Colleges policy says if a faculty member writes a book, it has to pass a vote by other instructors before the book can be used.
Jo-Carol Fabianke, the Vice Chancellor for Academic Success at Alamo Colleges told us, “In that case, the faculty member whose textbook is under consideration is not to be in that process.”
In a disciplinary letter Salas was told, "Your actions were highly unethical and ultimately cost the students in your class more money than students taking the same course from other instructors".
One of the people investigating Salas was the Chair of the Business and Government Department, Homer Guevara. Documents show Guevara later admitted he also had contracts with publishing companies. A contract obtained by the News 4 WOAI Trouble Shooters shows publisher McGraw Hill agreed to pay Guevara five dollars for every economics book sold to Northwest Vista Students.
And he didn't even write the books. Guevara and other faculty members just rearranged the chapters of existing books, so they could be turned into “custom books” just for Northwest Vista.
An affidavit also claims a publisher paid for a trip Guevara took to California last year. But Alamo Colleges has a policy that faculty members cannot receive royalties on books they require students to buy.
“They have to contribute what they would get off of that, from students at the Alamo Colleges, to our foundation,” Fabianke says.
Neither Guevara nor Salas would agree to be interviewed. However, Homer Guevara is also a board member for CPS Energy, so we caught up to him at a board meeting. Trouble Shooter Jaie Avila asked Guevara if it was appropriate to have a deal with a publishing company that paid him for every book that students were required to buy.
Guevara replied, “All monies have been turned over to the foundation for scholarships.”
However, documents show Guevara was ordered to contribute the money he received from publishers to the Alamo Colleges Scholarship Foundation after administrators learned about his publisher deals. Guevara estimates he received at least $15,000 from publishers and later gave it to the Foundation.
“After you were caught you turned it over to the foundation?” asked Avila.
“I wasn't caught. There were just questions about that, Jaie. In regards to who got the monies and so forth.”
Guevara did acknowledge he should not have accepted the royalties, and he signed a disciplinary letter stating that he violated Alamo Colleges policies. Both Guevara and Salas continue to teach at Northwest Vista, although they were placed on probation.
Alamo Colleges and many other institutions actually allow faculty members to make deals with publishers, as long as the royalties go back to the school, or in this case, its scholarship foundation. Which some feel is still a conflict of interest, because the college itself benefits by requiring a certain book. After all, contributions to the Foundation at Alamo Colleges still end up in the District’s pocket in the form of scholarship money for lower income students.
State Senator Jeff Wentworth sits on the Higher Education Committee and once taught at UTSA.
“I think there’s a pretty clear conflict of interest in that kind of arrangement,” Wentworth says. “I don't think universities should be in the position of taking royalties, or kickbacks if you would, from publishers if the school recommends their books.”
Alamo colleges has plenty of those deals, many of them involve those so-called “custom textbooks.” Faculty members take a publisher's book, cut out some chapters they don't want, maybe add a few lines, and voila, a textbook tailored especially for that school. The publisher sells it to the students at a slightly lower price than the regular text, and the college gets a royalty.
Sounds good, but it's actually the publishing industry's way to get rid of used textbooks that have cut into their profits. Custom textbooks are difficult to re-sell, so students have to pay for new ones every year.
Avila asked Alamo Colleges Vice Chancellor Fabianke about the process.
“You admit these custom textbooks as it turns out really undercut the used book market and can cost students more.”
Fabianke replied, “Yes, that can be the case. In general, customized books are more expensive in the long run.”
Fabianke says Alamo Colleges will be making fewer custom book deals in the future, and instead will encourage more low-cost e-books that can be rented. That might finally reduce prices for students, and keep schools and faculty from becoming commissioned book-sellers.
Senator Wentworth says he believes there should be a statewide ban on textbook publishers paying royalties to schools or faculty members if they require their students to buy those books.
McGraw-Hill response to Northwest Vista textbook story
McGraw-Hill Director of Communications Tom Stanton emailed with this response...
Instructors develop custom course materials in print or digital form for their students because they are extremely efficient and cost-effective, allowing instructors to provide learning solutions that align better with their course goals. And with custom print and ebooks, students purchase only the content that is required and most relevant for success in that course, which in most cases reduces the price of course materials – even when compared to the price of used books.
In order to maintain the quality standards that are necessary for students, McGraw-Hill and other educational publishers compensate for original content produced by world-class authors of national editions of textbooks as well as the additional content produced locally by instructors for custom print and e-textbooks. The Northwest Vista instructor mentioned in your story was compensated by McGraw-Hill for the considerable amount of content he added to the customized textbooks for his course.
Ultimately, the system of customized textbooks is a win-win for universities and their students, as everyone receives a better educational experience at a lower cost.