Groups Eye Ways to Take Bite Out of College Textbook Prices

A recent report highlighting the high cost of college textbooks has the publishing industry on the defensive, but college bookstores and open-publishing advocates say there are ways to ease the sting.

College students are packing up and will soon head back to school, where many will visit the campus bookstore and experience a fresh round of textbook sticker shock.

Complaints about the high cost of college textbooks are nothing new. As another school year starts, a new analysis by NBC News shows that textbook prices increased at three times the rate of inflation between January 1977 and June 2015, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)—a 1,041 percent increase, NBC says.

That statistic jibes with a similar study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), which found that 65 percent of students had decided against purchasing a book needed for 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 PIRG report, published in 2014 [PDF], states.

Students Spending Less

But there’s an interesting dichotomy at play. Despite higher textbook prices, spending on student materials has actually gone down significantly since 2007, according to a a recent study by the National Association of College Stores (NACS). The report found that students spent an average of $563 on books in 2014-2015, compared with $638 in 2013-2014 and $701 in 2007-2008.

NACS says its members are creating alternatives for financially strapped students, including rentals, used books, digital options, and books printed on demand. The result? Even though spending is lower, the number of materials students are using remains roughly the same.

“Campus stores, the leading resource for acquiring course materials, also have implemented more effective buying practices, increased used books and rental programs, and offered materials in multiple formats to help ease students’ burden,” Elizabeth Riddle, who directs the NACS subsidiary OnCampus Research, said in a news release.

In response to the NBC News analysis, a NACS spokeswoman noted that the diverse book options weren’t accounted for in the BLS data.

Open-Source solution?

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), meanwhile, has argued that educational resources should be more open, which would allow for lower-priced options. SPARC says much of the problem can be linked to a lack of competition in academic publishing.

“They’ve been able to keep raising prices because students are ‘captive consumers.’ They have to buy whatever books they’re assigned,” SPARC spokeswoman Nicole Allen told NBC.

This week, SPARC and more than 90 other signatories asked the Obama administration to set aside funds for the creation of open educational resources, focusing on both K-12 and higher education offerings.

“In higher education, where textbook costs are borne directly by students, the rapid rise in prices too often forces students to skip required materials, alter their course of study, or even drop out because it is the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” the groups wrote in a letter to the president.

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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