Report Highlights. The cost of college textbooks ballooned for years, but increased use of ebooks has reduced the cost to the consumer; the average ebook is 31.9% less expensive than its hard copy counterpart.
- The average college textbook costs an estimated $105.37.
- The textbook publishing industry is valued at $3.10 billion.
- Student spending on course materials declined by as much as 43.6% over a term of 10 years.
- The average full-time, in-state undergraduate student at a four-year public university pays $1,226 for books and supplies in one academic year.
- 25% of students reported they worked extra hours to pay for their books and materials; 11% skipped meals in order to afford books and course materials.
Average College Textbook Costs
The average cost of college books and supplies declined in the 2020-2021 academic year, in part due to an increased rate of textbook rentals and use of digital course materials.
- The average postsecondary student spends between $628 and $1,471 annually for books and supplies as of the 2021-2022 academic year.
- Hard copy books can cost as much as $400, with an average price between $80 and $150.
- The price of textbooks increases by an average of 12% with each new edition.
- Between 1977 and 2015, the cost of textbooks increased 1,041%.
- The increase in the cost of textbooks outpaced currency inflation by 238% from 1977 to 2015.
- From 2002 to 2012, textbook inflation outpaced consumer price growth by 192.9%.
- Up to 37% of postsecondary faculty do not know the cost of course materials when they select them for their classes.
Average Cost to Students
Most professors believe the cost of course materials is a burden to their students.
- From 2019 to 2020, the average cost-per-student for new hard copy textbooks declined by 3.45%.
- 29.7% of students have used financial aid to pay for textbooks.
- Among students using financial aid to purchase textbooks, 70% of their costs were covered.
- 82% of professors say textbooks and course materials cost their students too much.
- 80% of students surveyed in 2013 reported they had been required to buy an online access code for at least one of their courses.
- 43% of faculty believe their students learn more from print texts than from eBooks.
Average College eBook Costs
Increased online and distance learning necessitates a wider use of e-texts, which students may purchase for sale, subscription, or rent.
- The cost-per-student of eTextbooks increased 36.8% over 12 months.
- Over 10 years, student spending on eTextbooks increased 156%.
- 11% of postsecondary institutions make purchasing ebooks and digital course materials compulsory with inclusive access agreements or contracts with publishers.
- Among institutions serving minority populations, 13% have signed inclusive access agreements.
Since 2009, students and parents can also qualify for a $2,500 textbook and course material tax credit by submitting an IRS Form 8863 with their annual taxes.
Low-Cost & No-Cost College Textbooks
One response to rising prices is the adoption of course materials that are part of a shared resource system. These systems are most beneficial to students and faculty; meanwhile, publishers and institutions miss out on profits.
- 18% of postsecondary institutions provide information on open education resources (OERs) to faculty.
- 22% of institutions serving minority populations provide information on OERs.
- 82% of faculty select their course materials themselves.
- 17% of faculty say they are “very aware” or OERs and how they can lower the cost to students.
- 25% of faculty teaching large-enrollment introductory courses require some form of OER in at least one course.
- Among faculty to use some form of OER, 28% use it as supplemental course material.
How to Save Money on College Textbooks
One-in-five students report that the cost of books and materials directly influences their decision on what classes to take, and 63% of students say they’ve skipped buying a textbook altogether.
- Apply for book scholarships. Scholarships cover just about everything else, and there are many out there specifically for course materials.
- Use your tax credit. The American Opportunity and Lifetime Learning Education Credits allow you a $2,500 tax credit for course materials purchased. Fill out and submit an IRS Form 8863 with your annual taxes.
- Check for Open Educational Resources. Also known as OERs, OEMs, or OSMs, these open-source course materials are developed specifically for free use and distribution. A growing number of universities are allowing their faculty to adopt these course materials to help reduce costs for students.
- Look for discounts or access programs. You may find discounted rates for books and subscriptions your school may have negotiated with the publisher. Inclusive access programs are growing in popularity.
- Buy prior editions. Many publishers still release new editions of textbooks year after year that change very little from one edition to the next. Your instructor can probably tell you if there are any significant changes to the book from the prior edition.
- Look for global or international editions. These editions are almost always the same as the U.S. release sold 60% cheaper.
- Buy used books, rent books, or look locally. See if the book is available at a library. Also be sure to check out local booksellers and book buyers.
- Share books. Share with roommates or classmates who are taking the same classes. See if other students who took the class the prior semester are selling the book you need and cut out the middleman entirely.
- Ask ahead or wait to buy. If possible, read reviews by other students of classes ahead of time to see how much the textbook is actually used. Some instructors are required by their institution to “adopt” textbooks but rarely use them and will let students know that book adoption is a formality.
- See if your required texts are free online. Some of our favorite resources are:
- Google Scholar searches and links to academic resources. Scholar does not necessarily provide access to the full text for each search result, but it’s a good method for locating titles.
- Internet Archive, home of the Wayback Machine, is a nonprofit that hosts and searches millions of free books, audio, film, and more.
- Project Gutenberg and the Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation has archived over 60,000 books for open access.
- OpenStax from Rice University is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that is 100% free to users and packed with peer-reviewed resources on every subject.
The College Textbook Industry
Three (3) publishers control over 80% of the U.S. college textbook market: McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and Cengage.
- The textbook publishing industry was valued at $3.10 billion in 2020.
- Textbook industry revenue declined 35.6% from 2013 to 2020; this is an annual decline of 5.08%.
- Pearson saw a 32% growth in Q3 of 2020
- Cengage saw a 40% year-over-year growth in online skills revenue, and its digital sales have now offset the setbacks from declining hard copy book sales.
- 77% of postsecondary faculty report that in meetings with publisher sales representatives, prices of books are rarely volunteered.
- 38% of faculty report they’ve received a direct answer about price information when they asked for it.
- 63% of postsecondary faculty know the price of the course material they select for their classes.
- Publishers market “bundles” of books and course materials that cannot be bought separately, yet only 50% of instructors indicated they utilized the extra materials.
- 34% of faculty could not adopt the textbook of their choice without the bundled material or were unaware if it was an option.
Analysis: Why Are College Textbooks So Expensive?
New textbooks are expensive whether they are hard copy or digital. Meanwhile, publishers and schools find ways to make purchasing the newest texts compulsory.
While digital or ebooks offer convenience, many make use of access codes, which ensure every student pays full price. An access code gives a student temporary use of a learning management system (LMS) with the course materials, complete assignments, and access other critical resources necessary to complete their online class.
Schools with “inclusive access” agreements make these course materials mandatory. In other words, where students could once share textbooks or buy them used, purchasing the new text is now compulsory.
Called a “scheme” in a class action antitrust lawsuit filed against major textbook publishers, the inclusive access model builds the cost of online course materials into tuition fees. Because this model guarantees a number of textbooks purchased, the publisher can offer a quantity discount; this deal benefits both the publisher and the academic institutions. Students enrolling in these classes, however, have no way to opt out of paying for the textbook; they also cannot recoup a percentage of the cost of the book by reselling it after they’ve completed the class.
Finally, the cost of ebooks and LMS access has ballooned. While publishers do not have to pay the costs of printing, binding, and shipping textbooks, data storage is a major expense. Data storage requires physical real estate and energy for host servers, both of which have become much more expensive over the last several months. This means that for profit margins to remain the same (an estimated 22%), publishers and retailers must raise prices, limit their services, or make up the lost profit elsewhere.
- Bloomberg Law, McGraw-Hill, Barnes & Noble Accused of Online Monopoly (2)
- Bloomberg Law, Court Dockets: Case 1:20-cv-00102-UNA
- American Enterprise Institute, The New Era of the $400 Textbook
- U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics: Current Tables
- U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Fixing the Broken Textbook Market
- SpringerLink, COVID-19 and Book Publishing: Impacts and Insights for 2021
- The Association of American Publishers (AAP), A Victory for Affordability: Student Spending on Course Materials Declines 22% During the 2021-2022 Academic Year
- AAP, Student Monitor Fall 2020 Preview: Multi-Year Decline in Student Spending on College Course Materials Continues
- AAP, StatShot Annual Report: Book Publishing Revenues Up Slightly to $25.93 Billion in 2019
- Inside Higher Ed, OER Adoptions, Awareness Continue to Grow, But Many Faculty Members Still Hold Out
- Bay View Analytics, Digital Texts in the Time of COVID
- eLiterate, How Much Do College Students Actually Pay for Textbooks?
- NBC News, College Textbook Prices Have Risen 1,041 Percent Since 1977
- Bay View Analytics, Turning Point for Digital Curricula
- INFOdocket, Association of American Publishers (AAP) Releases December 2021 Statshot Report: “Publishing Industry Up 2.8% for Month, and 12.2% Calendar 2021”
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), College Tuition and Fees Increase 63 Percent Since January 2006
- BLS, TED: Cost of College Tuition Has Remained Stable Since September 2019
- Research.com, Average College Textbook Costs: How to Cut it Down Without Compromising Studies
- Student Public Interest Research Groups, Exposing the Textbook Industry
- Inside Higher Ed, Professors’ Slow, Steady Acceptance of Online Learning: A Survey
- Inside Higher Ed, Options Don’t Stem Textbook Woes