ACCESS DENIED: The New Face of the Textbook Monopoly

Across institutions and majors, an average of 32% of courses included access codes among the required course materials. At institutional bookstores, the average cost of an access code sold solo – i.e., not bundled with a textbook or primary course material of any form – was $100.24.

Amid rising college costs, college textbooks are often overlooked. New data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that textbook prices have increased by 88% in the past decade, compared to a 63% increase in college tuition and fees. For students and families already struggling to afford college tuition, hundreds of dollars for course materials often comes out-of-pocket and can be a serious barrier to student success.

These high prices are not without consequence. In prior reports, the Student PIRGs found that two-thirds of students skipped buying a textbook because of cost. Nearly 50% of students reported that textbook prices impact which and how many courses they were able to take. Another 33% of students reported using financial aid to purchase their textbooks.

The growth of cost-saving alternatives like used textbooks and free, openly-licensed educational resources have forced publishers to reassess their business and shift toward a new model: access codes.

In brief, access codes are serial numbers that allow students to unlock an online learning suite. These platforms often contain digital books, pre-made homework assignments, quizzes, tests, educational videos, and other multimedia content. The access code, once registered, becomes null and may not be used by any student in a different course or semester.

Given the rapid expansion of this new product in the marketplace, this report contains two pieces: a survey of critical consumer-oriented information on the potential impact of access codes, and an analysis of the transition from the student perspective.