Fixing the Broken Textbook Market, Second Edition

The U.S. PIRG Education Fund and the Student PIRGs asked students how the high cost of college course materials affects them. 

U.S. PIRG Education Fund

The high price of college textbooks remains one of the most significant out of pocket expenses for students. The cost of textbooks has increased at three times the rate of inflation and although that trend seems to have plateaued in the past few years, the high barrier of overall cost remains. The move from traditional print copies to temporary digital materials has eliminated many of the traditional cost saving measures students have historically employed. When students are forced to pay for an access code, which is an expiring login to a publisher platform that a student would use to submit their homework, the stakes are higher than ever.  

So, how are high course material costs affecting students today? The Student PIRGs implemented a national survey in Fall 2019 to find out. We asked nearly 4,000 students to share their experiences with us, across 83 institutions serving over 500,000 students. We found that despite publishers’ talking points that access codes and other digital materials have answered student’s cries for help over costs, there has been little measurable improvement in key textbook affordability measures over the last six years. The broken textbook market continues to fail to meet student needs, and leaders at institutions of higher education should take further action to aid students.


1. Two-thirds of students continue to skip buying assigned textbooks

66 percent of students reported skipping buying assigned course material – a textbook, and access code, or both – during their time at school because of its cost. Alone, 63 percent of students skipped buying or renting a textbook. This is nearly the same as our last national survey.

2.  About one in five students skip buying access codes necessary to complete assignments.

17 percent of students reported skipping buying an access code. While fewer students go without access codes compared to the number that go without textbooks, the risk of this decision is higher because access codes contain essential tests, assignments, and other required class materials. As a result, any student that chooses to opt out is likely putting themselves on track to fail the class.  

3. Almost every respondent worried forgoing these materials would impact their grade.

When asked if the student was concerned that not purchasing the textbook or access code would negatively impact their grade, 90 percent said yes. This worry indicates students know and understand the risk of not purchasing access to course materials, yet consistently opt to not purchase them.  

4. The cost of course materials has a broad impact on the lives of students.

High materials cost impacts are felt beyond the grade. Some of these choices relate to the student’s ability to succeed in class while others have impacts outside of the classroom. 

  • 25 percent of all surveyed students reported needing to work extra hours to afford course materials.

  • 22 percent of all surveyed students prioritized purchasing access codes over other course materials.

  • 19 percent of all surveyed students have made decisions on which classes to take because of materials cost.

  • 11 percent of all surveyed students report skipping meals due to materials costs

5. Students are unaware of their data privacy and use by ed tech companies.

We asked students to rate their understanding of how publishers and education technology companies use student data on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being fully aware and able to explain to a peer. The typical student rated their understanding as a median of 2, showing a very poor understanding of how their information is used by ed tech companies and publishers, who bury such information in long and often confusing terms of service agreements.


Course materials continue to pose a financial barrier to student success. Despite recent price fluctuations in the textbook market, students skip purchasing materials and experience the ill effects of high textbook costs at approximately the same rates as before the transition to digital materials. High costs impact more than grades in individual classes, and spill into students’ ability to meet their basic needs. 

With the rise of access codes, many students are being priced out of participating in class, especially since homework can be up to 20 percent of their grade. The move to digital also provides new challenges and questions on the front of student data privacy.

Since our last survey, we’ve seen the large payoff from the hard work of educators, librarians, states, and administrators who have worked to encourage the adoption of open textbooks. In an area where expiring materials have not led to price relief for students, solutions like open textbooks are still very much needed to deliver guaranteed savings.