The Cost of Textbooks is Too Damn High

June 7, 2019 Christopher Copeland

If there is one universal truth in education, it’s that textbooks prices have grown out of control in the last twenty years. Rising higher than the cost of inflation, textbooks and course material costs have often been viewed as part of the growing problem of student loan debt and the general unaffordability of higher education. And while the cost of higher education remains a huge concern there have been more recent changes with the overall cost of course materials. In fact, “course material spending has shrunk by 31 percent over the last decade, from an average of $701 in the 2007 – 2008 academic year to $484 last year.” (Campus Technology)

The reason for this decrease? Well, frankly it’s complicated but a large component of this change has to do with students now have more options on how to purchase or rent textbooks than ever before. For many students, the choices for course materials now include buying new, used, renting, downloading, sharing, or not buying materials at all. And while it’s tempting for many students to skip the textbook purchase altogether, the ability to pass the course and succeed in getting their degree often requires robust support and practice material. But at the same time classroom materials also shouldn’t break the bank or force students to choose between necessities and classroom resources.

But for many textbooks still seem really, really expensive. So, let’s discuss some options that instructors can consider when trying to make textbooks more affordable for students.

Inclusive Access

What in the heck is inclusive access?

This new-ish delivery model, which is offered by many of the major college textbook publishers, is one of the best unknown secrets of college textbooks. Simply put, inclusive access delivers textbooks (print and/or digital) by billing students as part of their college tuition fees instead of an at-the-bookstore purchase. So how does that save students money? Well, publishing companies love this model because it takes away the uncertainty of the ordering process and as a result are willing to discount their materials 50 – 70%. That means students and instructors can get the same books or digital resources at a steep, steep discount simply by having their bookstore opt into the inclusive access model.

The best part(s)? The model runs through the local, campus bookstore, gives every student access to course materials on Day 1, and still allows instructors to select the materials they find most helpful for their students and class.

Renting Textbooks

Another great option students can take advantage of to save some money on textbook expenses is to rent textbooks. Many textbooks can be rented at brick-and-mortar stores as well as online retailers. In fact, higher education publishers are starting to catch on as well, offering rental options direct to students now too. When selecting a new text, consider speaking to the bookstore or publisher about rental offerings. Renting textbooks can dramatically cut costs for students as long as the students don’t need the book(s) for future classes or reference.

eBooks and Digital Materials

Many, many classes today use some sort of online component. Most institutions, for example, require a school LMS for grades, syllabi, class announcements, etc. Given the increased usage of school LMS and demand for instant information from students, it’s no surprise that digital course materials would be on the rise. Whether you want a simple eBook or a full-blown adaptive, interactive classroom, digital materials can often cost students a lot less than traditional, bound print books.

Open Educational Resources

A big trend in the past few years has been the movement towards open educational resources (OER). The general gist is having faculty or departments create new materials or source resources that are relevant to their instruction that can be found or used for a free or ultra-low cost. And in many cases, it makes sense! The content for some disciplines hasn’t changed a ton over the years and it can seem hard to justify having students purchase the latest edition of a textbook. While OER can be an excellent solution, there are a couple of key items to consider before embarking on this path:

  • Permissions and copyright
  • Accessibility and ADA compliance
  • Grading resources (quizzes, tests, practice materials, manual vs automated grading)
  • Fact-checking and authenticity of the source material
  • Research and content updates
  • Necessary supplemental resources (PPTs, question banks, student feedback resources, case studies, lab materials, etc.)

Many faculty are now redesigning the courses they teach with open educational resources, but it tends to be a lot of work, time, and effort to bring it to fruition. One way to utilize OER and minimize the start-up issues is to actually look to the publishers you’re trying to avoid. It seems counterintuitive, but some education publishers actually have an OER model, where faculty can build and create ultra-low-cost offerings but within a pre-fabricated system that does away with a lot of the logistical headaches. For example, McGraw-Hill’s is called Open Learning Solutions.

Most people, students, instructors, and even publishers, acknowledge that textbook prices simply have gone crazy. Recent research shows that they’re coming down in cost, but the more instructors and students alike know about their options before purchasing the better. As instructors we have an obligation to our students to pick classroom materials that we feel will help them succeed. But whether you go with inclusive access, rental, digital, OER, or something else entirely, exploring or asking for more information on how to save students money is a key step in making college more affordable.

About the Author

Christopher Copeland

Chris Copeland is an Assistant Professor in the Mathematics Department at Moorpark College where he teaches a variety of courses including Intermediate Algebra, College Algebra, Trigonometry, Pre-Calculus, Calculus, and Statistics. Chris has a passion for distance education. Most of the courses he teaches are in an online or a hybrid setting. Since 2017, Chris has served as an MHE Digital Faculty Consultant with a focus on using ALEKS in the classroom.

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