Survey Shows Students Opting Out of Buying Textbooks

Media Contacts
Sarah Dobjensky

Students Demand Lower Cost Alternatives

WISPIRG Foundation

MADISON (January 27) – Today, a survey released by WISPIRG Students at UW-Madison shows that 65% 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 in college. Book prices are unnecessarily high and pose a serious cost barrier 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 markets offer students upfront savings, their prices are still determined by the cost of a new print book.

“Even though used books and rental programs are saving students money, the price of textbooks is still going up. We need the federal government, states, and most importantly – individual campuses – to support and invest in alternatives outside of the traditional textbook market.” stated Mariella Treleven, WISPIRG campaign leader. “The best alternative for students is 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.

More and more open textbooks are becoming available and used in classrooms, as states and individual campuses establish their own open textbooks programs. From the University of Minnesota, the University System of Maryland, and Tacoma Community College, campuses have already begun opting in to the open textbook model.

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.

“Students are paying too much for textbooks, plain and simple,” Treleven explained.
143 students from Wisconsin participated in the survey.

The report, entitled “Fixing the Broken Textbooks Market: How Students Respond to High Textbook Costs and Demand Alternatives,” can be viewed on our website at 

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WISPIRG Students is an independent statewide student organization that works on issues like environmental protection, consumer protection, and hunger and homelessness. For nearly 40 years students working with their campus WISPIRG chapters have been making a real difference in people’s lives and winning concrete changes to build a better world.