The battle over textbook prices got uglier last week when the State Public Interest Research Groups issued its second report on the subject, called Rip-off 101: Second Edition: How the Publishing Industry's Practices Needlessly Drive Up Textbook Costs. Among its findings: most popular texts have new editions published every three years and these new editions are priced 12% higher than the editions they are replacing, which, the report notes, is "almost twice the rate of inflation." The study also found that the average textbook costs 20% more in the U.S. than in the U.K.—and in some cases texts are dramatically more expensive here.

As with the group's January 2004 study, which was widely reported and led to several ongoing initiatives in state legislatures to cut textbook prices, campus and general newspapers across the country flocked to the story, usually to decry the rising costs. Responding quickly, the Association of American Publishers gave the State PIRGs' report a failing grade, knocking "its flawed methodology, selective use of data and lack of acknowledgment of recent research data that offer a different point of view." The AAP also offered up a Zogby survey of 1,029 faculty members that touted the importance of textbooks.

While the AAP's arguments were picked up by some papers, its argument that text prices should be seen in the context of broader problems in higher education, including soaring tuition and student fees, was often lost in the frenzy. For students, who have so little control over other educational costs and over the squeezing of resources available to them, textbook prices are a potent, galvanizing issue.