Report: High Textbook Prices Have College Students Struggling

The soaring cost of college textbooks is affecting students throughout the nation, to the point where some forgo purchasing books, despite the fact their grades could be in jeopardy.

In a survey of more than 2,000 college students in 33 states and 156 different campuses, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found the average student spends as much as $1,200 each year on textbooks and supplies alone. By comparison, the group says that’s the equivalent of 39 percent of tuition and fees at a community college, and 14 percent of tuition and fees at a four-year public university.

“Students are paying too much for textbooks, plain and simple,” said Ethan Senack, a higher education associate at U.S. PIRG, in a call with reporters. “The textbooks market is broken and students are paying the price.”

The problem, Senack said, comes from a lack of competition in the textbook market — professors, not students, are responsible for selecting course textbooks.

“They can’t shop around and find the most affordable option, meaning there’s no consumer control on the market,” Senack said.

As a result, publishers can keep costs high by printing new editions every few years — eliminating the option of reselling old books — or bundle the books with expensive software add-ons.

Because there isn’t strict control over the prices of books, costs have grown by 82 percent during the last 10 years — three times the rate of inflation, according to the report.

Due to the high cost of textbooks, 65 percent of students said they decided against buying a book required for class. Of those students, nearly all (94 percent) said they were concerned that doing so would hurt their grade in a class.

“Not only are students choosing not to purchase the materials they are assigned by their professor, but they are knowingly accepting the risk of a lower grade to avoid paying for the textbook,” the report said.

What’s more, nearly half of all students surveyed said the cost of textbooks affected which or how many classes they choose to take each semester. That means that if students choose to take a lighter course load to get around the financial burden of textbooks, they may spend a longer time in college overall — also an expensive option.

To solve the problem, the group said more universities should consider using open textbooks — those that are online, free to download and customizable for professors. The group estimates students could save, on average, $100 per course, per semester.

“If every student at the University of Wisconsin—Madison were assigned just one open textbook each semester, it would generate over $6 million in student savings in just one year,” the report said.

Nicole Allen, a spokeswoman for the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, said the report adds to a growing body of evidence that links high textbook prices with negative academic impacts.

“Whether it is doing worse in a course without access to the required textbook or taking longer to reach graduation, it is clear that the issue of textbook costs has evolved from a simple financial concern to a threat to student success,” she said in a statement to U.S. News. “If the current system cannot provide every student with affordable access to the course materials they need, then we need a better system.”