Survey Shows Students Opting Out Of Buying Textbooks

Media Contacts
Dev Gowda

Students Demand Lower Cost Alternatives

Illinois PIRG Education Fund

Today, a survey released by the Illinois PIRG Education Fund shows that 65 percent of student consumers have opted out of buying a college textbook due to its high price, and nearly half say that textbook costs can dictate whether they take a course.
Over the past decade, college textbook prices have increased by 82%, or at three times the rate of inflation, making them one of the biggest out of pocket expenses for students and families.
In recent years, alternatives to new, print textbooks have become widely available through rental programs, used book markets, and e-textbooks, which are digital versions of print books. While these options offer students upfront savings, their prices are still dictated by the prices of the new print editions.
“Students and faculty today have access to more information than ever about the costs of college textbooks,” said U.S. Senator Dick Durbin.  “Even though this information can help steer students towards used books or rental programs, the cost of new textbooks continues to skyrocket. According to the students surveyed in this report, the rising cost of textbooks not only adds to the overall financial burden of attending college, it can also have a measurably negative impact on their academic performance and student outcomes. In order to have the biggest impact on changing this trend, we need to increase investments in open textbooks and give students access to the high-quality, low-cost alternatives they need and demand.”

“Free, open and online textbooks are a great resource for students and professors,” said Dr. Jonathan Tomkin, Research Associate Professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “For many college subjects there is no need to compel students to buy expensive textbooks when excellent open resources are available – I make it a policy to use free online texts in my courses whenever possible. The open nature of many of the texts means that they are great for instructors as well, as they can easily be adapted for individual course needs.
“Despite the growth of used book markets, rental programs, and e-textbooks, student consumers are still captive to the high prices of the traditional market,” stated Dev Gowda, Advocate for Illinois PIRG Education Fund.  “We know that students can work together with campuses and other policy-makers to give students a real alternative to traditional textbooks. Our leaders can ease the burden of high textbook prices by investing in open textbooks.”
Open textbooks are faculty-written and peer-reviewed like traditional textbooks, but they are published under an open license, meaning they are free online, free to download, and affordable in print. 82% of survey respondents said they would do significantly better in a course if the textbook were free online and a hard copy was optional, which is exactly how open textbooks work.
Open textbooks save students $100 per student, per course on average.  The report calls on campuses and legislators to adopt their own open textbook initiatives.
The amount that students are spending on books and supplies topped out at $1,200 this year, according to the College Board. That’s equivalent to fourteen percent of tuition at a four-year, public college – and thirty nine percent of tuition at community college. However, the report notes that spending on books has risen more slowly over the past 5 years than previously, and credits the increase in rental and used book options.
The report also notes that the federal provisions passed in 2008 to increase textbook price transparency are having some impact. Students are able to see textbook prices during course registration, and faculty can see individual book prices, all of which can steer students toward used books and rentals.
Nonetheless, the publishing industry continues to control the marketplace. Student consumers are still captive to high costs as prices on new print versions of books determine prices for used books. In order to actually turn the price curve downward, models that operate outside of traditional publishing need to be brought to the marketplace.
“The open online textbook that I co-edited (Sustainability: a Comprehensive Foundation) has been used by universities both inside and outside the state of Illinois, by hundreds of students in my “Earth Systems” class, and by thousands of students in the Coursera class “Introduction to Sustainability”. Students have given the free online textbook very positive reviews  – and they have saved tens of thousands of dollars as well,” added Professor Tomkin.
“Students can’t afford to let the publishers call the shots on textbook prices anymore,” Dev Gowda explained.
Download the report, entitled “Fixing the Broken Textbooks Market: How Students Respond to High Textbook Costs and Demand Alternatives.”
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Illinois PIRG Education Fund conducts research and public education on behalf of consumers and the public interest. Our research, analysis, reports and outreach serve as counterweights to the influence of powerful special interests that threaten our health, safety or well-being.