Keeping It Affordable: 4 Strategies for Driving Down Textbook Expenses

By Ray Dademo

March 11, 2019

Considering what students pay in tuition can we also expect them to fork over hundreds of dollars every semester for books?

Most of my students are on financial aid, how can I ask them to strain their budget even more for classroom materials?

Textbooks are just too expensive.

Sound familiar? These questions of affordability keep educators awake at night. As tuition prices climb higher and higher, department chairs and instructors struggle each year to keep the cost of individual courses down. The goal—and it’s a good one—is to create an atmosphere of inclusive and accessible learning, one that taxes students intellectually, but not financially.

In veering toward open-source learning, instructors have managed to compile free sources from the Internet—or else operate without a primary textbook. While this certainly solves the problem of affordability, it doesn’t always yield better results. In fact, open-source learning can leave students dangerously under-supported and, in some cases, working from inaccurate or old information. In recent years, I’ve attempted to abandon the traditional textbook model and, while there are benefits there are also pitfalls to consider.

First, open-education resources (such as free online textbooks or articles in the public domain) provide few supplemental resources for struggling students—namely quizzes and additional support exercises. This is especially troubling for students with learning disabilities and second-language learners, who often need ADA resource support and the option to repeat the day’s lessons at home. Furthermore, as “free” textbooks (and in many cases only free online, they still can cost $50+ for printed versions) aren’t always professionally edited, accurate, or in the case of journalistic articles and sources, updated. As a result, I am often forced, at the beginning of each semester, to review all of my materials for incorrect or outdated information. So, while the cost-cutting benefits of OER for students are fairly obvious, what I have found is it is instructors are often the ones shouldering a larger burden when using these resources — particularly adjuncts who rely on supporting resources when teach multiple courses with minimal time and pay.

Putting it simply, I, like most instructors, am searching for a balance between affordability, time, and academic rigor. I don’t wish to put my students in a financial bind; however, they do need effective resources in order to learn properly—and these cost money. Navigating the available options, I’ve learned that one way to achieve balance lies in giving students some semblance of choice over the materials that they use.

Here are four popular options for driving down costs and simultaneously supporting student success:

Rental Options:

More and more, my students are electing to rent their textbooks—instead of purchasing. Particularly in elective courses and prerequisites, when they sense they will not need the required texts beyond the final exam date, financially burdened learners seek more affordable options for “getting through” their coursework. Renting from either a publisher or their school bookstore, students will simply lease a text and then mail it back at semester’s end. In all cases, this reduces the price—sometimes up to 70%—and, thankfully, publishers have begun to offer rental packages that include supplement and digital resources. McGraw-Hill Education, for example, offers purchasing options that grant access to digital materials, online adaptive learning tools, and interactive questions and videos—as well as the rented textbook.

Digital Access:

As an alternative to tangible (and often costly) books, digital materials can provide the perfect midpoint between affordability and effectiveness. In addition to lowering prices (up to 30%), digital platforms like McGraw-Hill Education’s platforms: Connect®, ALEKS® and SIMnet® offer stronger support to both student and teacher. For instructors, switching to a digital interface allows for greater flexibility and multimodality; they can gather data on classroom performance, offer instant feedback, and capture lectures. Students, on the other hand, reap the benefits of personalized learning software, practice quizzes, and adaptive study resources that they can access on the go.

Loose-leaf Materials:

Rather than buying a traditionally bound copy of the course’s required text, students may opt for a cheaper version: the loose-leaf textbook. Though there are some downsides—loose-leaf is neither durable nor seductive when it comes to reselling—these affordable texts do offer some under-discussed benefits. First, they’re easy to carry; students can simply take the day’s relevant chapters with them to class. Furthermore, anyone concerned about taking notes in rented copies (for fear of driving down their resale value) can feel free to scribble, scrawl, and stain the pages of their loose-leaf text. Loose-leaf texts similarly offer deep discounts in comparison to new, bound books – making it an affordable print option that students can keep and take notes in for future classes.

Inclusive Access:

Though this is rarely the decision of a single individual instructor, colleges (or department heads) may decide to partner with a publisher on setting up programs called “Inclusive Access”. Inclusive Access programs sets up a system between publishers and the campus bookstore that allows for classroom materials to be paid via student tuition.

The benefits of Inclusive Access:

  • Materials are provided to students on the first day of class, through the college’s bookstore or online learning management system (LMS). Instant access of this kind has been shown to boost student performance by 20%.
  • Students pay 50-80% less than they would for a traditionally printed textbook.
  • For students receiving aid, this approach is especially beneficial. Billed through their tuition, they can access their materials without waiting for their financial aid to come through, putting them on equal footing with their peers and decreasing early dropout rates
  • For instructors, this approach simplifies the grading process and permits a greater unity among disparate sections of the same course. At the same time, instructors and departments can maintain their academic freedom by selecting the materials they prefer or by customizing their course components.

And while partnerships like this may sound like headaches for individual instructors to establish, the increased popularity of these setups across the country has made bookstores, administrations, and publishers extremely eager to work out the details.

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Ray Dademo

Professor Ray Dademo is an instructor of English at Middlesex County College. He has previously taught as an adjunct at Rutgers University, Montclair State University, and Monmouth University. He holds an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University and a BA in English from Fordham University. His pedagogy involves the use of cinematic literacy as an entry point for composition studies. He has recently co-authored an article for the CEA Critic, titled Narrating the Moviegoing Experience: Reframing Film for First-Year Composition.