Students are finding ways to save money on textbooks, or do without, reports the The Chronicle of Higher Education, which surveyed students at Foothill College in Silicon Valley (I live down the street) and Berkeley.
Ask Johnny Lazzarini whether he ever skips buying textbooks, and the Foothill College student laughs.
“When I look at a syllabus and it says, ‘required text,’ I think in my head, Oh, that’s adorable,” says Mr. Lazzarini, 21, a biology major at this Silicon Valley community college.
Mr. Lazzarini, who waits tables 35 hours a week, has a hard enough time paying for rent and groceries. Textbooks cost him about $500 each quarter. So before he buys one, he looks up the class on Rate My Professors. If previous students say the professor rarely uses a book, he skips it.
One out of every three seniors—and one in four freshmen—often don’t buy required materials because of their price, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement.
Twenty-one percent of students admitted using a pirate site to get textbooks in 2012, according the Book Industry Study Group.
Some students go online to buy cheap international editions. (My husband stopped writing engineering textbooks because the very low-cost Indian editions are resold illegally in the U.S., cutting his royalties. He can’t make enough money to justify his time.)
Most college book stores rent textbooks. So do Amazon and competitors like BookRenter and CampusBookRentals, reports the Chronicle.
The result: When students enter the Foothill campus bookstore, they may be confronted by five different prices for a single book. Take Approaching Democracy. The political-science textbook sells for $62 (e-book), $154 (new print book), $115.50 (used print book), $107.80 (new print rental), and $59.30 (used rental).
Using Amazon for rentals and used books, Sarah Schueler spent only $80 for books last quarter at Foothill. New, they’d have cost about $400.
E-books usually are cheaper, but most college students prefer print textbooks.
Using an online book for one class, Eduardo C. Albano, 18, found he had to spend twice as much time to read it.
“For some reason, my brain could not get the information as clearly reading the electronic screen as it could marking up the pages and reading it firsthand,” he says.
Providing free e-books is turning out to be difficult because of “money pressures, slow adoption by professors, and quality concerns,” reports the Chronicle.
High textbook costs make it harder for Foothill students to complete their degrees.
The price of textbooks is more than double tuition at Foothill, says Marie Efira, 63, who studies anthropology. She’d take more classes if she could afford the books.
Beth Stolyarchuk, a Marine Corps veteran and radiology student, supports her family on the GI Bill. “I have to go and spend $400 for a couple of books—it’s absolutely outrageous. It’s unacceptable that I can’t buy groceries for two weeks because I had to pay for books.” She borrowed from her in-laws to pay for food.
Textbook costs are a growing burden for community college students, writes Eric Frank, president and co-founder of Flat World Knowledge, Inc., on the College Affordability blog.
Most community colleges have held down tuition increases in the last decade, according to a recent study (pdf). Yet textbook prices increased 22 percent over the last four years, quadruple the inflation rate, Frank writes. As a result, many students are not buying the books they need, surveys have found.
Some policy makers are trying to innovate. California will fund the creation of 50 free online college textbooks. Washington State’s Open Course Library offering community-college students affordable online resources.
However, the textbook industry resists change, Frank writes. As sales go down, publishers “raise prices and revise editions faster to flush out used books.”
Disruptive new business models have emerged to change the economics of the $8 billion college textbook business. Educational entrepreneurs with new ideas and technology innovations are offering students a variety of alternatives to high-priced, static course materials.
Options range from textbook rentals to digital textbooks to the more transformative open textbook model, which gives students free, unlimited access to their texts online, and allows instructors to edit the content to match the learning outcomes of their course.
Open textbooks, part of the growing open educational resources (OER) movement, is an easy way to drive down costs and reach under-served students.
Textbook costs must be part of the national conversation on college costs, Frank writes.
College textbooks are expensive, but students have more choices than ever before, AP reports.
A new federal law requires publishers to provide textbook price information to professors and calls on colleges to identify course textbooks during registration, giving students more time to shop around. Experts call it a step in the right direction, but not a game-changer.
More promising is the chance to shop for used books online or to rent textbooks.
The prospect of digital books and slow-but-steady growth in free online “open” content loom as developments that could upend the textbook landscape and alleviate the perennial problem of rising prices.
College students spend $667 to $900 per year on required textbooks and other course materials, surveys estimate.
The 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act “requires publishers to offer textbooks separately from extra items like workbooks and CDs,” reports AP.
The practice of “bundling” products leads to markups of 10 to 50 percent and makes books harder to sell, according to the Student Public Interest Research Groups, which pressed for the reforms.
Textbook rentals are hot this year, reports Community College Times. Follett Higher Education Group and Barnes & Noble College Booksellers, which contract to manage 1,500 campus bookstores, have expanded their rental programs which typically offer a semester-long rental for half the price of a new book. About half of the 3,000 member stores of the National Association of College Stores (NACS) now offer textbook rental services, up from 200-300 stores a year ago.
Students taking classes out of their majors don’t need to own the book, said Charles Schmidt, public relations director at NACS. “However, a chemistry major will often refer back to his or her Introduction to Organic Chemistry text later in their academic careers, and maybe even in their professional careers, so buying makes more sense.”