Recruit & Retain (St. Leo University)

Managing Textbook Expense

Many students struggle with growing textbook prices. What can be done to help?

Higher education has been intensely scrutinized recently for high and increasing tuition prices. Rightly so, as the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates average annual increases of 7 percent from 2002 to 2012. But nearly on the same pace is the rising cost of textbooks, which during the same time period went up at an average annual rate of 6 percent. While students no doubt have been aware of the issue all along, cringing at the start of each semester as they tally the costs, legislators have finally caught on.

In November, Senators Dick Durbin and Al Franken sponsored a bill named the “Affordable College Textbook Act” which, if passed, would establish a grant program to make textbooks available online with free access. Digital textbooks can be updated to reflect new information, whereas hard copies were always at the mercy of the latest edition.

It is encouraging that legislators are at least aware of perhaps the greatest hidden expense for college students. It is not uncommon for a full-time student to spend more than $1,000 for textbooks in a single semester.

The price tag has become a barrier to a quality education and plagued completion rates. Students cannot afford to spend this much money on books and, as a result, are ill equipped to meet course requirements. A 2011 survey by the Student Public Interest Research Group found that 70 percent of students had not purchased a required textbook due to costs. Even those who don’t fail the course outright are still discouraged by below-average performance. Many students take fewer courses each term — even when their employer pays their tuition — because they cannot afford the cost of the required textbooks.

Pursuing Other Options

Students now seek other options beyond the campus bookstore to find the lowest price, but purchasing or renting from online retailers must allow time and expense for shipping and processing. Delays are common and classes are underway, sometimes for weeks, before textbooks arrive.

Most institutions follow one of two models for textbooks: the student-purchase model or university-provided model. Each has their advantages and shortcomings.

The student-purchase model allows individuals to seek additional sources for the textbooks. Borrowing a textbook or splitting the cost with a friend can be effective. The downside is that students can also frequently purchase the wrong book by mistake, and suddenly the cost incurred rises again.

The university-provided model obviously ensures students obtain the right materials (or, for the 70 percent who already responded they’ve taken a course without the book, ensures they have the materials). The downside is that the freedom to comparison shop is now gone.

Given such a Catch-22, what’s an institution to do?

At Saint Leo, we have actively pursued various programs to reduce textbook costs to students, including:

  • Creating a master syllabus mandating common books for all sections of a course
  • Developing customized textbooks wherein only the chapters and materials applicable to the course are provided and the cost is lowered
  • Providing book orders early to bookstores
  • Providing options to students for new, used and digital materials with clear pricing information for each
  • Implementing textbook rental programs
  • Offering a guaranteed buy-back program
  • Providing financial aid vouchers, so students can purchase books before their financial aid is distributed
  • Using library resources in place of traditional textbooks

These are effective programs that run with very little institutional obligation.

While the bill introduced in the Senate will help bring awareness to this growing problem, I’m skeptical of its tangible benefit if passed. The solution to growing textbook costs does not sit in Washington. It sits on every college and university campus across the country.

Understand the Market

One of the biggest inflators of textbook prices is the revolving door that has become annual edition updates. These changes add no educational value to the book and are simply used by the industry to sell more copies by killing the used textbook market.

The answer to this epidemic is for faculty members to have a real understanding of the texts they utilize and understand when they and their students are being manipulated.

In 2014, finding ways to ease the burden of textbooks must be a major focus for every college and university. We have passed the buck long enough, and the result is textbooks weighing down students much more than backpacks.

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Authors

Arthur F. Kirk, Jr., is president at Saint Leo University in St. Leo, FL.

Susan Colaric, Ph.D., is assistant vice president of Instructional Technology at Saint Leo University.

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