Too High – The Cost of Textbooks

Though many states now have lotteries that help offset the cost of registration and fees at state colleges, students are still faced with the overwhelming expense of textbooks. In addition, scholarships offered by many universities cover tuition and fees, even room and board, but not the costs of textbooks. Parents and students often overlook this crucial expense when making financial arrangements to cover college costs. And why not? Rarely do students purchase textbooks until they enter college. Most high schools, largely because of state regulations, offer textbooks free to students. Until they get into the college bookstores, many students have no idea that a single text may be as high as $200.

According to a New York Times editorial blog of April 10, 2008, one of the hidden costs of a college education is textbook purchase (Editorial Board). In fact, a government report found that “in the past two decades the price of [college] books has increased at twice the rate of inflation” (Cohen). The website reports that the average student spends about $900 per year on textbooks, which is nearly 20% of tuition and fees at a four year public institution. In years past, students could count on being able to take their texts back to the bookstore to re-sell so that other students could buy them used at a discount. However, many colleges follow two-year adoption cycles, meaning new editions with minor changes in pagination, structure, or content are just enough to throw a wrench into the re-selling process. “Since new editions are on average 12% more expensive than the previous edition, students are spending a lot of money for little educational gain” ( The new editions necessitate students being very careful also when trying to buy used books. It’s important to double check the ISBN number to be sure that the used book being purchased is the right book for the course (Cohen).

Currently the House of Representatives’ education committee has proposed bi-partisan legislation that would be helpful in eliminating some of the high costs of textbooks. The legislation would add strict requirements for colleges and publishers as part of the Higher Education Act, the major law that governs federal student aid (Lipka). For example, faculty members would be advised ahead of time of prices for the textbooks they are considering for use in their courses (Editorial Board). This is especially important for adjunct professors who do not usually get a vote in the adoption process but are supposed to use the book chosen. This often results in adjunct course instructors using only bits and pieces of the adopted texts, and requiring students to purchase supplemental materials, another cost on top of the initial one. Some of these added costs could be eliminated by the federal bill which would require colleges to include lists of the required and recommended materials for each course in their published catalogs (Lipka). Colleges would need to guarantee that faculty hired after the publication of the catalog lists adhered to the use of the required books.

Additionally, the pre-packaged, shrink-wrapped versions of textbooks are not always necessary and the proposed legislation would provide that textbooks be sold to students without all the ancillary materials required for purchase too, known as “unbundling” (Editorial Board). In a survey of 287 professors in Massachusetts colleges and universities taken in 2006, only 50% of the professors who assigned a bundled book said that they used the additional materials often. One-third said that they either could not assign the book they chose without the bundle or did not know if that option was available ( In some cases, students might actually prefer to have just a CD version of the textbook over the actual hard copy, but can’t buy it separately as it stands now. If the legislation is passed, students would be able to buy the textbook and any other parts separately if they find that less expensive.

Finally, the legislation would require that colleges post the prices of textbooks well in advance of opening day of classes. Yes to that. Allowing time for students to browse used book websites for the best deals or to visit off-campus booksellers for better deals is imperative. Unfortunately, some college bookstores are made or broken on their sales of textbooks. They have a financial interest in “springing” required textbooks on students at the last minute so that students have no recourse but to purchase in the campus bookstore. “We believe that price disclosure legislation is an essential part of a larger solution,” says Nicole Allen, textbooks-campaign director for the Student Public Interest Research Groups (Lipka).

As difficult as it is for many students to afford their texts for undergraduate courses, the problem becomes even more hurtful for science, engineering, and other technical majors who must not only have textbooks but usually lab manuals, instruction and tech manuals, and even software programs in order to continue higher level courses. Graduate students are simply doomed when it comes to purchasing books because their courses are so highly specialized. Some groups like the Association of American Universities and the American Council on Education oppose the posting of textbook prices in advance because they fear that it will keep students from going into nursing or science classes to avoid the high costs of textbooks (Lipka). However, putting the costs out front for students to know and to calculate into their total costs for each semester seems more likely to keep students in these programs than to scare them away.

Savvy students have learned a few tricks to avoid some of the high costs of textbooks. For example, friends who take the same courses may register for different sessions so they can buy one book but share it among several users. This works well if the students live in the same dorm or can work out times and places to drop the textbook for the next use. Some students use older editions and hope for the best when it comes to citing pages or finding the same content.

“Mounting textbook prices are one of a number of factors that are pushing higher education further out of reach of many young people” (Editorial Board). It’s time for state and federal legislation to kick in on this issue, and the House Education Committee is expected to pass the bill with the textbook provisions intact (Lipka). With rising fuel, food, housing, and credit card costs, many students are losing the option of a college education at the very time when the economy of our nation depends on more technical school and college graduates. The inability to pay for expensive, use-one-time-and-can’t-resell textbooks shouldn’t be the determining factor in whether students can go to college

Works Cited

Campaign to Reduce College Textbook Costs. Web.

Cohen, Alex. “Textbook Prices Soar.” Day to Day (NPR) 2007. Web.

Editorial Board. “That Textbook Costs How Much?” New York Times Editorial Blog. 2008.

Lipka, Sara. “House Bill Proposes Disclosure Rules to Control Textbook Prices.”

Chronicle of Higher Education (54:22) 2008. Web.