How Online Textbooks Are Driving A Decline In Student Spending

College students have often struggled to afford or access textbooks and are now transitioning to using online course materials due to the spread of COVID-19. But there is now a combination of affordable options, such as open-source materials and low-cost publisher-provided materials available!

College textbook publishers are laser-focused on affordable course materials, driving a steep decline in student spending. 

College students have often struggled to afford or access textbooks and are now transitioning to using online course materials due to the spread of COVID-19. Highlighting the bright side of this transition into a virtual world, surveys across the United States have found that the amount students are spending on course materials each year has decreased. A combination of affordable options, such as open-source materials and low-cost publisher-provided materials have most likely led to this decline. 

A student resting their head on a stack of textbooks

As a direct result of the many affordable options becoming increasingly available, student spending on course materials has seen a dramatic decline over the past six years, going from an average of $691 to just $422 for the 2019-2020 school year, a decline of 39% over a six-year period, according to independent research firm Student Monitor

Research firm College Board also echoed these findings in recently released reports. College Board reported an annual average of $410 per year spent on course materials according to page eleven in the report, Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2020

Education publishers are focusing on the affordability and quality of digital course material options. Laura Knox, Director of Affordable Solutions at W. W. Norton & Company commented on the many options for students and instructors to access online resources. According to Knox, the wide variety of high-quality digital resources out there set students up for success in their courses and create a healthy ecosystem in the higher ed. landscape. 

“At W.W. Norton & Company, we provide high-quality content, and delivering that [content] in an affordable way provides the best value for the student,” Knox told The Wire

Publishers are responding to the needs of students in the best way possible by continuing to provide students with printed editions of course material as well as online resources. Therefore, learners who are better able to comprehend print over digital content can still utilize printed books. 

It is important for students and instructors to know the many options available to access course material. Eric Weil, Managing Partner at Student Monitor commented on the many options available for students and instructors. 

“The student market is not monolithic. Students do different things for different reasons and it is not all about the price of the item,” Weil told The Wire

Therefore, companies are not only lowering the price of textbooks, but they are also looking into ways in which they can offer a variety of resources to cater to all student needs. 

Eric Weil has also said that “there is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ solution for college course materials that cover a vast diversity of subject areas. Today, savvy students can choose between new, used and rental textbooks; e-Textbooks; subscription programs; a variety of Inclusive Access programs, and more, all with an eye to the greatest possible savings, and the best educational outcomes.”    

Purchasing course materials is a top source of financial stress for students and may hurt their academic performance according to a survey in 2018 by Morning Consult on behalf of Cengage, a digital education company. 

When asked how much they spend on textbooks each semester, multiple students at Wheaton College (MA) estimated they spend about $200 per semester just on required textbooks. A Junior studying Political Science at Wheaton College described his own experience with buying textbooks and alternative resources. He said that expensive textbooks normalized students going through courses without a book at all due to the high price.

“In each of my classes, we only use one-third of the textbook and we pay a lot of money for textbooks that we use only once for our courses. I have also never been able to find a majority of the books that I need at the library or campus bookstore,” the Political Science student at Wheaton College told The Wire

A Junior currently studying History at Wheaton College reflected on her experience with the challenge of acquiring the many required textbooks for her classes each semester. She said that students only need to read a section of many of the books, yet are required to buy the entire book when it might be easier for everyone if the students were just given access to the few pages of the books in pdf format. 

“I had to buy eight books for one class and that was a lot of money for just one class’s course materials,” the History student at Wheaton College told The Wire.

It seems that a majority of students are unaware of the online resources that are available to them today. Though there may be a lack of distribution of information across campus to students about alternative resources available to them, the Wallace Library at Wheaton College does offer materials online for students to take advantage of if they are met with financial challenges when purchasing course material. 

Wallace library
Wheaton College Wallace Library study area.

According to Kate Boylan Director of Archives & Digital Initiatives, the Wallace Library does not subscribe to Inclusive Access, yet it does provide many avenues of free access to course-related materials through different services in the Library (course reserves, eBooks, InterLibrary Loan [ILL], content in databases, etc.).

Megan Brooks Dean of Library Services also offered information stating that the library commits to providing access to as many required course materials as possible through course reserves. The main challenge that the campus has been faced with is the challenge of increasing student awareness of these resources offered by the Wallace Library. 

According to Knox, W. W. Norton & Company is supporting students who are struggling for these reasons by offering Norton’s Support Center where instructors and students go to get personalized and timely support when they need it. 

Due to students’ learning curves, instructors are restructuring their online courses in ways that most effectively support all students. This past year has been a transition for everyone in terms of the course structure. Cengage Unlimited has helped instructors transition their course materials online and rebuild their classroom design into a more accessible learning format. 

Higher education has become more flexible in the mode in which course materials are distributed. Comparing the cost of these course materials today compared to a few years ago shows a continuing decline in student spending. Furthermore, according to publishing companies, the flexibility in course materials will continue to increase alongside the rise in digital usership in years to come.