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The high cost of college textbooks, explained

Publishers say digital options make textbooks cheaper. Affordability advocates say it increases their stranglehold on the market.

Three students sit at a library table, each resting their head on the stack of books in front of them. The person in the middle seat has a book open on their head like a tent.
Textbook costs increased 88 percent between 2006 and 2016, according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
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Hannah, a senior at a private university in New York City, can’t think of a single semester when she bought all the books she needed for her classes. “Even when I was studying abroad,” she said, “there was no way for me to get through the semester without dropping $500-plus on textbooks, which I couldn’t afford.”

So she didn’t buy them. That semester, Hannah, who asked that her name be withheld due to privacy reasons, found most of the books she needed on Scribd, an e-book subscription service. “I used my free trial to do pretty much all my work for the semester and to take screenshots of things so I could access everything once the trial ended,” she said. If she couldn’t find them there, then she would do without.

Hannah’s tuition and housing is covered by scholarships, but she has to use student loans to pay for her health insurance; she pays for other necessities, including textbooks, out of pocket. In other words, her generous financial aid package isn’t enough to cover the essentials. Her situation is far from unusual: A 2014 report by the Public Interest Research Groups found that two-thirds of surveyed students had skipped buying or renting some of their required course materials because they couldn’t afford them.

Textbook publishers, for their part, have begun acknowledging that textbooks and other course materials have become so expensive that some students simply can’t afford them, even if it means their grades will suffer as a result. Publishers claim that new technologies, like digital textbooks and Netflix-style subscription services, make textbooks more affordable for all. But affordability advocates say that if anyone is to blame for the fact that textbook costs have risen more than 1,000 percent since the 1970s, it’s the publishers — and, advocates claim, these new technologies are publishers’ attempt to maintain their stranglehold on the industry while disguising it as reform.

Why textbooks cost what they do

Conversations about college affordability tend to focus on tuition, and with good reason — the cost of attending college in the US increased 63 percent between 2006 and 2016, according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Compared to tuition, which can cost out-of-state students at public universities as much as $26,000 per year or upward of $40,000 at some private colleges, the amount of money students spend on things like textbooks can seem negligible.

But the price of textbooks has similarly skyrocketed over the past decade: Textbook costs increased 88 percent between 2006 and 2016, according to the BLS report. The College Board suggests that students set aside $1,200 each year for books and other course materials, which can be an exorbitant amount of money for students who come from low-income backgrounds.

Not all textbooks are created equal, and not all textbooks are equally priced. Books for humanities courses like art history tend to cost less than those for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) courses like chemistry or calculus. (Scott Virkler, the chief product officer for the higher education group at McGraw-Hill, told me that books for “quantitative courses” tend to cost more because “the content itself costs a lot more to build and maintain” than it does for other types of courses.)

Some professors don’t assign textbooks at all, instead opting to fill their syllabi with a combination of journal articles and other texts, some of which cost money, some of which don’t. Thanks to the advent of textbooks that come bundled with online access codes — a single-use password that gives students access to supplementary materials and, in some cases, homework — other professors can rely on one textbook for almost everything.

As a general rule, though, the amount of money students are expected to spend on course materials has rapidly outpaced the rate of inflation since the ’70s. Affordability advocates point to two major factors behind this: a lack of competition in the higher education publishing industry, and the fact that professors, not students, ultimately decide which texts get assigned. Four major publishers — Pearson, Cengage, Wiley, and McGraw-Hill — control more than 80 percent of the market, according to a 2016 PIRG report. Major publishers also tend to “avoid publishing books in subject areas where their competitors have found success,” which ends up limiting professors’ options for what to assign.

Digital textbooks, especially those that come with access codes, have also contributed to rising costs. When students buy a textbook, they aren’t just paying for the binding and the pages; they’re paying for the research, editing, production, and distribution of the book. And when that book comes with an access code, they’re also paying for the development of — and, as the name suggests, for access to — all kinds of supplementary materials, from lessons to videos to homework assignments.

Access codes, the PIRG report notes, also undercut the resale market. Since the codes can only be used once, the books are essentially worthless without them. They can also prevent students from turning to other cost-saving measures like sharing a book with a classmate.

Kaitlyn Vitez, the higher education campaign director at PIRG, told me she’s met students who couldn’t afford to buy books that come with access codes, even if they knew their grades would suffer. “One student at the University of Maryland had to get a $100 access code to do her homework and couldn’t afford it, and that was 20 percent of her grade,” Vitez said. “So she calculated what grade she would have to get on everything else to make up for not being able to do her homework.”

“On a fundamental level,” Vitez said, “you shouldn’t have to pay to do homework for a class you already paid tuition for. You shouldn’t have to pay to participate.”

Are digital textbooks a move toward affordability? Or are they a way of limiting students’ options further?

Textbook publishers say they’re well aware of students’ difficulty affording books and are making strides toward affordability. “The market, right now, is going through a reset,” Virkler, the McGraw-Hill executive, said. “The prices of textbooks themselves spun out of control over the last 10 or 15 years. About three or four years ago, right around 2015, prices started to come down significantly. So we’re at a point now where, on average, for a semester, taking a full course load, the course materials are costing around $240 to $250.”

Virkler and Nik Osbourne, the senior vice president of strategy at Pearson, both pointed to a recent development in the industry, dubbed “inclusive access,” as a move toward affordability. Inclusive access is basically a way of including the cost of course materials in a student’s course materials fee, which is levied by the university. According to publishers, inclusive access helps keep the cost of materials low because there’s a near-guarantee that students will buy the products; it’s kind of like buying in bulk, but for textbooks instead of food. At most universities that use the service, through McGraw-Hill, Pearson, or another publisher, students have to opt out of the program, or else they’re automatically enrolled — except for in Florida, Virkler said, where they have to opt in.

“It drops the price down significantly, because we know the vast majority of the class is going to actually purchase materials,” Virkler told me. Osborn said that “in 99 percent of cases,” students “have the ability to opt out” but choose not to because of the ease of the program, which gives them access to all the course materials from the moment they enroll in the class. “Full stop, right there, before we even talk about affordability, that student now has the ability, from day one, to be in the class and have the materials they need. You don’t have a student who has waited two or three weeks to make a decision on course materials.” The opt-out rate for inclusive access, Osborn said, is “extraordinarily small.”

Kristina Massari, the director public and media relations at Cengage, told me the publisher recently implemented a subscription-style service for textbooks, which lets students pay $179.99 per year for access to every Cengage textbook they need. This service, she noted, can often cost less than a single textbook.

But these ostensibly affordable options come with some drawbacks. For one, they’re only for e-books, which means students can’t try to resell books at the end of the semester to try to recoup some of the money they spent. In some cases, the books expire at the end of the semester; Osborn told me that students can pay additional fees for “perpetual access” if they want.

Vitez, the PIRGs affordability advocate, told me that inclusive access and textbook subscription services aren’t as generous as publishers might make them sound. “Inclusive access means [publishers] are guaranteed a larger share of the market,” she said, because many of them require students to opt out instead of opting in. And there’s nothing stopping the handful of publishers who control the bulk of the textbook market from raising the price of a subscription down the line.

Trident Technical College, the biggest technical school in South Carolina, is a perfect example. The institution has a contract with Pearson that requires it to guarantee 12,291 inclusive access enrollments in the 2019 calendar year. If Trident doesn’t meet that quota, the Post and Courier reported, Pearson can charge full price for the course materials. The college is now embroiled in a lawsuit, filed by a local used book seller, for allegedly running a “scam” on students and using the inclusive access program to limit students’ ability to get books elsewhere.

According to the bookstore, which reportedly obtained emails between professors, school administrators, and Pearson representatives via Freedom of Information Act requests, many students were unable to opt out of inclusive access because their classes required them to access Pearson’s MyLabsPlus, a digital platform where students have to submit assignments. Advocates point to instances like this as proof that inclusive access is meant to hinder students’ ability to find books elsewhere — and not, as publishers claim, to help them get the best possible materials for as little money as possible.

Open source textbooks: how students are fighting back

Student advocates don’t expect the move toward truly affordable course materials to be led by publishers. Instead, they’re encouraging professors to adopt — and help develop — free, open source textbooks. Kharl Reynado, a senior at the University of Connecticut and the leader of PIRG’s affordable textbooks campaign, told me she’s had to pay “upward of $500” for books and access codes and has dropped courses because she couldn’t afford the costs. “I’ve had friends who spend entire paychecks on just their textbook costs in the beginning of the semester and had little money left over to cover food, gas, and sometimes, in extreme cases, rent because of it,” she said.

“We work closely with students and campus partners such as the UConn Library to promote open textbooks to different professors and educate students on their options,” she added.

The real challenge is getting professors, who are ultimately responsible for which books get assigned, to adopt the free options. Professors don’t assign books by major publishers or books with access codes because they want students to suffer — they do it because, more often than not, it’s easier.

As Vitez noted, an increasing number of universities are replacing full-time, tenured staff with adjunct professors. Adjuncts, many of whom are graduate students, are paid by the course, typically don’t receive benefits, and occasionally find out they’re teaching a class a few weeks before the semester begins. In other words, they don’t necessarily have the time or resources to spend the summer developing a lesson plan or to work alongside librarians to find quality materials that won’t come at a high cost to students.

That’s where books with access codes come in. These books come loaded with vetted, preselected supplementary material and homework assignments that can be graded online. They require a much smaller time investment from underpaid instructors. They’re the publishing industry’s solution for a once-secure labor force that has become increasingly precarious.

The rising cost of textbooks, then, is a sign of one of the greatest paradoxes of higher education: As everything from tuition to housing to books gets more expensive, the people who are tasked with making sure students receive a good education are being forced to do more work for less money. The result is a world where students and professors alike struggle to get by.

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