The college course materials market is broken

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Cailyn Nagle

New report from U.S. PIRG Education Fund offers ideas on how to fix it

U.S. PIRG Education Fund

WASHINGTON — The shift away from physical textbooks to online access codes for college classes has adversely impacted students, who now not only have to pay for tuition and online or hardback textbooks, but also have to pay extra to submit essential assignments from homework to quizzes. 

A new study from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund, titled Fixing the Broken Textbook Market: 2nd Edition, is based on a survey conducted across 83 college campuses. It shows that despite the supposedly lower cost of digital access codes versus hard-copy textbooks, staggering numbers of students still struggle to afford basic class materials. If the coronavirus (COVID-19) forces colleges to conduct the fall semester remotely, and access codes become even more common, the financial burden will worsen.

“Students always have been forced to make hard choices to complete their degree. Now, because of the high cost of access codes, many of them need to decide if they can afford an A or need to settle for a C. That’s not how higher education is supposed to work,” said Cailyn Nagle, the report author and Affordable Textbooks Campaign director for U.S. PIRG Education Fund.

Access codes are user-specific passcodes that allow entry to publisher websites where professors often assign readings, dole out homework, hold quizzes and take attendance. These codes typically only activate for one semester, so publishers can eliminate cost-saving techniques for students, such as buying used books or sharing a book with a classmate. When so much of a student’s potential grade is locked behind a high-priced paywall, students are forced to find ways to scrounge up the money to participate in their classes — or else forfeit that portion of their grade. 

Key findings from the report include:

  1. 66 percent of students skipped buying course materials at some point in their college career because of the cost.

  2. 17 percent of students reported they skipped buying an access code. While significantly lower than the percent that don’t purchase the other types of materials, this often more directly impacts the grade because without the password, students cannot turn in required assignments.

  3. The high cost of textbooks affects students inside the classroom and out, with 25 percent stating they needed to work extra hours at a job to afford their course materials, and 11 percent reporting they skipped meals to save money.

The main fixes for some of the problems in this broken textbook market have been open textbooks and other open educational resources (OER) that save students across the nation millions of dollars each school year. 

“While college students face many challenges in 2020, at least when it comes to the cost of course materials, they have a simple solution — open educational resources — if their institutions and professors are willing to provide it,” said Nagle. “Affording college is hard enough as it is. There’s no reason why students dealing with the fallout of COVID-19 should have to worry about being able to afford their homework when open and free alternatives exist.”

Find the full report at: