Students Are Spending Less on Textbooks, but That’s Not All Good

February 25, 2016

With all of the talk about the high cost of college textbooks and the buzz about free online alternatives, it is surprising how little is understood about how much students spend on required course materials.

About This Series

This commentary is part of a series by the authors of the ed-tech blog e-Literate, Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill.

The popular wisdom is not only that textbook costs are high ($1,200 a year per student, according to one oft-cited report), but that they are rising rapidly (three times the rate of inflation in a 40-year period, say some reports).

And yet it might surprise many people to discover that, on average, students are spending less and less on textbooks and other required course materials. At least according to a National Association of College Stores survey, average spending per student per year has decreased by 16 percent in the past five years, to approximately $563.

Are students being crushed by ever-rising textbook prices, or is this an overblown problem where students are actually saving money compared with past years? It turns out that the answer is a mix of the two: Students are spending less and less on textbooks over time, but there are some problems with this reality.

When it comes to debates about rising tuition, people often take into account issues of financial aid and scholarships that can lead to lower net prices for some. But when it comes to discussion of the price of course materials, there is little talk of how textbook prices affect access and student success.

The New Education Landscape

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Re:Learning project provides stories and analysis about this change moment for learning.

 If we really want to help students, let’s first understand the data sources, then look at the potential problems with students’ purchasing behavior. Doing so reveals that the real issue of textbook costs is one of inequality of access, especially for first-year, first-generation students. What’s at stake is student success — retention and how long students take to graduate.

We need to stop looking at the headline numbers and see deeper issues that can help us meet our students’ needs.

Fact-Checking the Stats

The College Board positions itself as the source for information about the cost of college, and its reports look at tuition, room and board, books and supplies, and other expenses. One of the College Board's charts is the source of most of the confusion.

The light blue "Books and Supplies" data, ranging from $1,249 to $1,364, leads to the often-quoted $1,200 number. But look at the note right below the chart: "Other expense categories are the average amounts allotted in determining total cost of attendance and do not necessarily reflect actual student expenditures."

The College Board includes budget estimates for the books-and-supplies category, and these are based more on financial-aid considerations than on pricing or student expenditures. The College Board is working to help people estimate the total cost of attendance; it is not providing actual source data on textbook costs, nor does it even claim to do so. Reporters and student advocates just fail to read the footnotes.

For most discussions on textbook pricing, the more relevant question is, What do students actually spend on textbooks? Do the data indicate that students are spending more and more every year? The answer is no, and the reason is that there are far more options today for getting textbooks than there used to be.

Prior to the mid-2000s, the rough model for student expenditures was that roughly 65 percent purchased new textbooks and 35 percent bought used textbooks. Today, there are options for rentals, digital textbooks, and courseware, and an increasing number of students are simply choosing not to get their required textbooks. Furthermore, the College Board’s numbers and many other measures typically do not include the effect of open educational resources, or OER, even though usage of OER reduces what students pay.

The National Association of College Stores’ Student Watch survey measures average student spending for required course materials, which is somewhat broader than textbooks but does not include nonrequired course supplies.

It shows that American college students spend less than in the past on textbooks despite rising retail prices. On one hand, this is a positive development: Students are choosing to vote with their wallets and not just blindly pay list price. The textbook publishers are feeling this effect, painfully, based on corporate bankruptcies and plummeting stock prices.

Consumers, to a degree, are winning, and forcing an industry to change. The invisible hand.

And yet … there are some real problems emerging.

One problem, called out by Mike Caulfield on his blog, is that the students least likely to benefit from the new online and rental options are first-year, first-generation students. First-year students spend much more than others, as seen in the 2014 NACS report:

Officials at NACS were kind enough to provide cross-tabs on two of their questions against sector and first-generation status. For Fall 2014, students were asked how much they spent on required course materials. First-generation students spend 10 percent more, acquire 6-percent-fewer textbooks, and end up paying 17 percent more per textbook than do non-first-generation students. This data could be used as a starting point for policy to solve this problem.

A second problem is noted by Tanya Joosten in a recent online discussion: "When low-income students look at the anticipated costs of attendance, it dissuades them from even applying or actually registering."

A third problem is called out in a Florida report from 2012, which delves further into this issue of impacts of college costs on various groups. David Wiley, the co-founder and chief academic officer at Lumen Learning, provided an excellent analysis of these findings:

"Textbook costs cause students to occasionally or frequently take fewer courses (35 percent of students), to drop or withdraw from courses (24 percent), and to earn either poor or failing grades (26 percent). Regardless of whether you have historically preferred the College Board number or the student survey number, a third fact that is beyond dispute is that surveys of students indicate that the cost of textbooks negatively impacts their learning (or at least their grades) and negatively impacts their time to graduation (drops, withdraws, and credits)."

Let’s have a more student-focused discussion of what textbook costs mean — and who benefits from various attempts to lower the cost of course materials. As we do so, I think we’ll find that student-success metrics related to whether students can get timely access to required course materials will be more meaningful than focusing on the price listed at the bookstore.

Phil Hill is a partner at MindWires Consulting, co-publisher of the e-Literate blog, and co-producer of e-Literate TV.

Correction (2/26/2016, 4:25 p.m.): The original version of the chart showing spending by various groups incorrectly included spending on technology and supplies as well as course materials. The numbers have been corrected to reflect spending on course materials only.

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