Fixing the Broken Textbook Market

The cost of college textbooks has skyrocketed in recent years. To students and families already struggling to afford high tuition and fees, an additional $1,200 per year on books and supplies can be the breaking point.

Arizona PIRG Education Fund


Executive Summary

The cost of college textbooks has skyrocketed in recent years. To students and families already struggling to afford high tuition and fees, an additional $1,200 per year on books and supplies can be the breaking point.

As publishers keep costs high by pumping out new editions and selling books bundled with software, students are forced to forgo book purchases or otherwise undermine their academic progress.

In recent years, some steps have been taken to provide relief from runaway costs. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 requires publishers to disclose textbook prices to professors during the marketing process, and for students to see textbook prices during course registration.

§ Short-term cost-reducing options: Recently, publishers have increased cost-saving options like e-textbooks. Rental programs and used book markets have also emerged as more consumer-friendly options to new books. According to the National Association of College Stores, more than 3,000 schools offer rental programs, up from 300 in 2009. Unfortunately, since the price of rental, used, and e- books is dictated by the price of the new print edition, these models can only take us so far.

§ Long-term alternative models: Open-source textbooks, which are free online and affordable in print, are gaining significant traction as an innovative replacement for print textbooks. More than 2,500 professors have agreed to adopt open-source textbooks in their classrooms. Some colleges have  created their own campus-wide pilot programs to encourage the use and development of open textbooks.

The Student PIRGs conducted this study to investigate the continued effects of high textbook prices on students and higher education, as well as to evaluate student interest in alternatives to the traditional textbook.

Report Findings

During the fall of 2013, the Student PIRGs conducted a survey of 2,039 students from more than 150 different university campuses. Here are the major findings:

1. High textbook costs continue to deter students from purchasing their assigned materials despite concern for their grades.

65% of students said that they had decided against buying a textbook because it was too expensive.

The survey also found that 94% of students who had foregone purchasing a textbook were concerned that doing so would hurt their grade in a course. More than half of the students felt significant concern for their grade.

It is concerning that students are forced to forego assigned textbooks – which are an essential aid in learning new material, completing assignments, and studying for exams – because they are too expensive.

This also means that students are not only choosing not to purchase the materials they are assigned by their professor, but they are knowingly accepting the risk of a lower grade to avoid paying for the textbook.

2. High textbook costs can have a ripple effect on students’ other academic decisions.

Nearly half of all students surveyed said that the cost of textbooks impacted how many/which classes they took each semester.

Students attend college seeking job preparation and/or degree attainment. Careful course selection is often necessary in order to yield the results that a student is seeking within the timeframe they are prepared to study. It is especially concerning that this process may be being undermined by high textbook costs.

3. Students want alternatives, expressing support for textbooks that are available free online and buying a hard copy is optional.

82% of students felt they would do significantly better in a course if the textbook was available free online and buying a hard copy was optional. This is exactly how open textbooks are designed.

Not only is the open textbook an ideal alternative to a traditional textbook from a student point of view, but it is the only product in the marketplace that can directly challenge the high prices that publishers charge for new editions. These high prices, which outpace inflation, underpin the entire textbook marketplace, and drive market conditions for other alternatives such as the used book and rental markets.


Overall, this study demonstrates that despite recent steps forward in the marketplace, high textbook costs will continue to be a problem for students unless the cost of high-priced, new editions of college textbooks comes down.

Moreover, the study demonstrates that students are ready for an alternative to traditional textbooks in their classrooms. Open textbooks are the ideal model that student respondents felt would improve their classroom performance.

In addition to upfront student savings, open textbooks can help reduce costs in the long run and drive real change in the market. With free online versions and with optional purchase of a hard copy, open textbooks give purchasing power back to the student, removing the market failure that allows high prices for traditional textbooks while protecting the rights of faculty to assign the textbook they feel most appropriate. In contrast, options like rentals and e-books offer no such fix to the market and allow prices to continue rising.

While the current supply of open textbooks is expanding quickly, they still cover only a fraction of all college courses. To introduce competition into the market and to make open textbooks a real alternative to traditional textbooks, there needs to be more ‘start-up’ investment in the creation and development of open textbooks.

On many campuses, faculty members have championed open textbooks – but widespread knowledge about available materials is lacking. Additionally, it often takes time and effort to make the switch to an open textbook. The single most effective way for campuses, state, and federal policy makers to overcome this challenge is to provide faculty with the resources they need to make the switch.


§ Students should directly advocate for open textbook use in their classrooms

§ Faculty should consider adopting open textbooks in their classrooms. They should check the U. Minnesota Open Textbook Library to see if there’s a book available for your class.

§ Campus administrators should consider creating an open textbook pilot program on their campus. They can see the University System of Maryland’s MOST Initiative as a sample.

§ State and federal legislatures should invest in the creation and development of more open textbooks. See Washington state’s Open Course Library as an example.

§ Publishers should develop new models that can produce high quality books without imposing excessive prices on students.