College students currently spend an average of $900 a year on textbooks — a number that has increased at four times the rate of inflation since 1994, according to US PIRG. At a time of tuition hikes, slashed funding opportunities and fewer part-time jobs, spiraling prices for books are coming at exactly the worst time for already-strapped students.

In an effort to increase the affordability of textbooks, the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act includes new guidelines for colleges and publishers, which came into effect at the beginning of this month. But will they help?

The new legislation, as reported by the Albany Times Union and covered by HuffPo, requires publishers to disclose information like price, copyright dates of the previous three editions, revisions between a new edition and previous versions, and to differentiate between unbundled versions and versions that include unnecessary supplements like CD-roms and passcodes. It also asks institutions to list information on textbooks within course schedules in a timely fashion and encourages the universities to "provide the list of assigned textbooks for each course so students can shop around for the best deal."

The provision is being championed by some as a big leap in higher education cost reform, but looks sufficiently watered-down as to end up producing little real drop in cost. Nicole Allen, a textbook advocate for CalPIRG, told the Daily Californian that "the goal of this law is to make the market more fair for the students, and Tom Kline of the Follett Corporation, a distributor of education materials that runs the bookstore at UC Berkeley, told Politico: "We applaud the intent of Congress to address the cost of textbooks … given the challenging aspects of the act, Follett is ready to support UC Berkeley and all of Follett’s institutional partners to help ensure compliance with the new law." But as John Soares’ blog on college textbook supplements points out, the information on textbooks that’s now being required had long been readily available — a simple Amazon search on behalf of a professor or student will quickly draw the information necessary to make a cost-effective purchase. Students themselves already make efforts beyond what’s given to them by college administrators or instructors; discount sites like EBay’s, cost-efficient e-readers, book swap programs and rental options are easily available. A 2006 article in the Washington Post explains:

Last year, advocates gave Virginia legislators petitions with thousands of signatures, asking them to change the way textbooks are bought and sold. The market is odd, said David Solimini of the student advocacy group Virginia21, because the students usually don’t have the choices most consumers do. During the summer in Virginia, lists of required books went online early, so students could shop around … And plenty of students come up with their own strategies: Hunting down used copies and selling books back at the end of the semester; buying online, which is sometimes cheaper than the campus store; asking professors to put a copy in the library and waiting around till it’s free. Or borrowing, copying, taking careful notes in class — and gambling that the exam questions don’t come from the text.

If lawmakers genuinely wish to ease the burden of the cost of textbooks, a more direct approach is going to be needed to lower prices — something more than gently "encouraging" colleges to provide information that students can easily gather themselves.