How much does the average college student spend on textbooks? This is one of the pressing questions students need to address to prepare the college budget.
Textbooks are integral to education. They make up a significant portion of the expenses incurred by the average college student. In some instances, such costs could be even higher than college tuition, as in community colleges. (Martin et al., 2017)
Here is a look into how much an average college student spends on textbooks, how the cost affects students, and what students can do to cut down costs.
There is a continuous decline in how much an average college student spends on textbooks and other course materials, as reported by several organizations.
According to Student Monitor’s Fall 2020 data, individual college students’ spending on course materials decreased by 7%, falling from $199 in Fall 2019 to $186 in Fall 2020. The revised College Board (2020) report shows a comparable figure of $410 spending on textbooks alone per year for public two-year and four-year institutions. Similarly, Student Watch (2020) reports $413 in spending for the 2019-2020 academic year.
The 2010 data shows nearly $700 spending on course materials (AAP Communications, 2020). Florida Virtual Campus (2016) also reported that 53.2% of the students in their 2016 study spent more than $301 in the spring term. Hence, the decline in spending is significant.
Source: National Association of College Stores; AAP; Publishing Perspectives
Over time, the average student has spent less on textbooks and digital course materials. Several studies consider the availability of alternative forms of materials, such as digital copies, and alternative means of acquiring them, like subscriptions or renting, as significant factors influencing the said decline. Student Monitor (2020) reports that renting has become more prevalent than purchasing new books.
Nemec (2020) notes that Student Watch attributes the decline in textbook spending to the growing use of digital materials and higher spending on technology. The percentage of students downloading free materials online doubled in one year to 26% in Spring 2020. Meanwhile, students spent at least $100 on technology for their courses; that is much higher than in the previous years. (Nemec, 2020)
Indeed, students have better access to such materials and multiple options in terms of formats.
Despite the available alternatives now, the cost of textbooks is rising just as tuition is also increasing. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the costs of new college textbooks have increased by “roughly 6% per year since 2001,” approximately triple the rate of inflation. (Hill, 2015)
Meanwhile, the General Accountability Office (GAO) reports that from 2002–2012, average textbook prices rose by 82%, while overall consumer prices increased only by 28%. (Hill, 2015)
Suffice to say, the continuous rise in the prices of textbooks may have contributed to many students’ decision to find alternative resources to cut down their expenditures.
With the digital transformation in college textbooks, alternative formats like digital books do not require printing or binding, but there remains an evident rise in the average price of textbooks. Hanson (2021) explains four reasons why college textbook prices are so high:
Findings of a Florida Virtual Campus (2016) study suggest that expenditures on textbooks limit student access to needed learning materials. Cost affects their time to graduation as well as their access to courses. Students also reported taking fewer classes, not registering for courses, and dropping or withdrawing due to textbook costs.
Backing the findings of Florida Virtual Campus is a study by Martin et al. (2017), which also shows that 66% of students did not purchase a textbook because of its cost. For many of them, not doing so negatively affected their grades in the class. One student was quoted as saying in the free response that “The $200-600 I save every three months is worth dropping a half GPA point.”
Also, from the same study, 86% of students said they put off buying a textbook due to cost, and a great majority of them claimed it harmed their grades. A fifth of the students reported taking fewer classes due to textbook prices in terms of graduation time. Meanwhile, a third said they had postponed or skipped a course partly due to textbook prices. (Martin et al., 2017)
For students, according to Martin et al. (2017), money saved from textbooks could improve their quality of life, lower the cost of education, not to mention they can spend it on educational pursuits. They would use the savings afforded by open textbooks to address personal financial requirements, such as housing and healthy eating habits. They would use this money to pay down debt and enhance their education. (Martin et al., 2017)
If students can address their personal financial requirements with their saved money, then it can subsequently help their parents recover from student debt, which is found to “have mental health implications for aging parents, particularly for fathers” according to Walsemann et al. (2020) in their study published in The Journals of Gerontology. Series B, Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences.
The findings of Walsemann et al.’s (2020) study titled “The Other Student Debt Crisis: How Borrowing to Pay for a Child’s College Education Relates to Parents’ Mental Health at Midlife” show no significant relationship between student debt and mothers, but among fathers, “having any child-related educational debt versus none was associated with fewer depressive symptoms, but having greater amounts of child-related educational debt was associated with more depressive symptoms and worse mental health.”
Saving on textbook spending can ease a family’s financial burden, not to mention worries.
According to Student Monitor (2021), many students still love physical textbooks. However, instead of purchasing a new traditional textbook, about two-fifths of students in 2020 rented at least one copy of course material over a semester or academic term.
The findings of Florida Virtual Campus (2016) show that “the most-used cost-saving measure reported by students is purchasing books from a source other than the campus bookstore (63.8%).” Results also show that “a majority (84%) of survey participants reported a willingness to rent textbooks in order to reduce costs,” and over a quarter of the students reported that “they chose to rent digital textbooks rather than buy lifetime access to a digital version of a textbook.”
Eric Weil, a managing partner at Student Monitor, said that “students have at least 10 different options or combinations of options when it comes to deciding.” They can purchase a new printed textbook or a used one, rent a book, or buy limited or unlimited access to e-books. (AAP Communications, 2020)
Source: Florida Virtual Campus (2016)
There is quite a long list of ways students can cut down their spending on course materials without sacrificing their grades or time to graduation. Consider the following tips for saving money on college textbooks from DeAmelio-Rafferty (2021) and Powell et al. (2021):
Several states have passed legislation supporting the use of OER in public institutions. These free online textbooks often do not “expire” once the student completes a class, according to DeAmelio-Rafferty, thus allowing students to use them throughout a program. Studies also show that OERs potentially eliminate the textbook barrier to a college education. (Martin et al., 2017)
Print books have digital or loose-leaf formats that would be much cheaper. The same could be the case for a mandatory reading list for a course, so it is worth checking.
Renting textbooks can be much cheaper than buying them outright. It is even better if a copy is available in a local library, as it can be rented for free.
Several sites, like eBay, sell used books, which will be significantly cheaper than new ones. However, note that there are books with access codes to additional online resources, so make sure any code needed for added resources is included before purchasing a used book.
Schools may offer discounts on textbooks, especially since some colleges partner with publishers to get cheaper deals. Also, DeAmelio-Rafferty notes that some local bookstores partner with nearby schools and institutions to offer student discounts.
Some colleges and organizations provide book scholarships. Some organizations may even cover lab and materials costs, according to DeAmelio-Rafferty.
After a semester, consider selling old books through the school bookstore or online stores like Amazon to get some funds for a new book. The return may not amount to the book’s original price, but it can still reduce the needed amount to purchase a new book.
Due to the exorbitant cost of many textbooks, some students have created textbook swap schemes, which some institutions even host, according to Powell et al. (2021).
Borrow a book from someone who has already taken the course. Share a book with a classmate, with whom the cost of the book could be split.
Publishers release new book editions every few years. However, recent editions are often more expensive but only slightly different from the older version, making old versions another option to save money. If in doubt, it is best to ask a professor if an older edition, which likely has a different pagination, will cause problems in assignments.
Some subscription-based programs offer textbook discounts. A fixed price may allow unlimited access to countless course materials. Cengage and Pearson are among the platforms that provide such services.
Sometimes, if a professor opts in, institutions make books available digitally at a discounted price to students even before the first day of class. Students can either keep the digital material access or decline and buy it elsewhere.
A small but growing number of colleges include all course materials with college tuition. Some charge a separate fee from tuition costs. This setup helps students save money in the long term since universities often get better rates in bulk.
Apart from finding ways to cut down spending on textbooks, another option, according to Powell et al. (2021), is to reduce other personal expenses or additional costs and control their spending habits. For instance, instead of staying in a costly apartment or room, they could get a cheaper space or share a room with someone. Instead of eating out all the time, students could cook. Of course, the reduction in spending from these suggestions may be minimal, but what is saved in total could still help purchase new course materials.
There are alternatives to the costly printed textbooks now. Thanks to technology that allows the creation of alternative formats of course materials, there is a continuous decline in student textbook spending.
Feldstein (2016) says that “students are getting better and better all the time at avoiding buying the textbook.” He adds that at the same time, “market options proliferate and improve.” As for book rentals, he says, “textbook rental companies are getting four or five semesters of rental out of one book.” That is “four or five semesters’ worth of sales that publishers are missing.” As such, Feldstein says that major publishers have responded by offering rental services and low-priced options. He calls it “defensive actions” in the publishing industry.
Textbook costs should no longer hinder students from reaping the benefits of a college education. Other means of acquiring course materials are making college education more accessible.