College’s High Cost Causes Some Students to Forgo Course Materials

Posted By Terri Williams on September 30, 2016 at 10:37 am
College’s High Cost Causes Some Students to Forgo Course Materials

College students without course materials? It’s happening these days, not because students are disinterested or slackers – because the high price of an education means they can’t afford all the accoutrements. That’s true sometimes even of textbooks.

Many students don’t have enough money to cover all of their expenses. A new survey by Wakefield Research for VitalSource reveals that some students cope by doing without course materials. Other students delay purchases or share textbooks to make their dollars go further.

Selected excerpts from the survey are below:

Purchasing decisions:

27% Have not purchased course materials
72% Have delayed the purchase of course materials until after the class started


Other ways students are trying to meet the need for textbooks:

55% Have purchased older versions of course materials
47% Have gotten a job
46% Have shared materials with a classmate
44% Have used financial aid money to pay for course material


Also, 77% of respondents want their college to offer the option of including course materials as a part of tuition:

47% Say this is not an option at their school
17% Don’t know if this is an option at their school

The effects of lacking course materials

Among students who delayed or did not purchase course materials:

45% Believe it negatively impacted their grades


This is problematic for several reasons. The cost of college is entirely too high for students not to receive the maximum benefit of taking classes. Making lower grades may be a catalyst for students to discontinue their education. However, research shows that students with loans who drop out of college are least likely to be able to handle their payments.

In addition, while the job market is slowly recovering, competition for good jobs is stiff, and many college grads are forced to accept low quality jobs with low wages. Those with lower GPAs may be more likely to get passed over in favor of applicants with better grads.

Why textbooks are so expensive

While the total cost of college has been increasing at an alarming rate, the cost of course materials in particular, also has skyrocketed. Pep Carrera, COO of VitalSource Technologies, tells GoodCall, “The average student in the United States at a two-year public institution will pay $1,364 a year for books and course materials; at a four-year college or university – whether public or private – the average is approximately $1,250.”

Why are textbooks so expensive? According to Carrera, “Education publishers invest tremendous resources into the creation of textbooks working with experts in the field – often leading professors – to author, curate, organize and deliver content and assessments in a package designed to facilitate learning.” These books are sold in student bookstores and also through online sellers. However, these are not one-time purchases. Carrera explains that each book may be sold up to six times, but the publisher only receives revenue from the first sale.

“Making matters worse, rental textbook programs have grown significantly over the past five years as well, reducing the sell through of ‘new’ titles even further – and as a result, publishers have to maximize the price of their initial sale to cover the lost sales,” says Carrera.

Alternatives for course materials and textbooks

Fortunately, there are other ways for students to access the materials they need. Carrera says digital options are usually less expensive since publishers don’t have the same overhead costs for warehousing and distribution. “However, affordability is only achievable when textbooks are included as a part of the course, allowing publishers to discount content significantly.”

He explains, “eTextbooks, in ePub3 format, offer a multitude of interactive, multimedia content features we know students want, offering a greater degree of value and enhancing students’ learning experience.” Carrera says the company’s research reveals students find this option more convenient than print materials.

Another alternative is using a site such as, which allows students to find the cheapest prices for a variety of textbook formats, including e-books, new and used traditional textbooks, international versions, and even books that can be rented.

Alex Neal, president of, tells GoodCall, “We search dozens of bookstores and thousands of individual sellers for the real time pricing on books.” Neal says international versions are also included in the searches because they are considerably less expensive that domestic textbooks – and there is very little, if any, variation in the content. “We even offer a proprietary Buy Versus Rent tool that calculates the total cost of ownership of a textbook including estimated depreciation and buyback prices, so students can see if it really is cheaper to buy or rent a book.”

While many students may assume that renting course materials is always a cheaper option, Neal warns that this is not always the case. “In fact, savvy students are using our tool to arbitrage their textbook costs to get free textbooks and in some cases even profit on their textbooks by buying and selling in the offseason to take advantage of the dramatic seasonal price changes in the textbook industry.”  And the website provides a buyback comparison so students can get the maximum amounts from sales of course materials.

An instructor’s perspective

John Richard Schrock, a professor at Emporia State University, believes college textbook costs are out of control. Schrock teaches biology courses for both biology majors and non-majors. He tells GoodCall, “I require the book because I ask more complex or high level questions that require interpretation of graphs in the book as well as interpretation, analysis, and application of the material to new problems.”

Schrock may give non-majors daily quizzes and majors have weekly quizzes. “Using a laptop or other E-text alternative is not permissible because such devices can communicate during quizzes with outside parties.” He says that students prefer print versions for a variety of reasons.

Before the digital revolution in the 1980s and early 1990s, Schrock says a new textbook was roughly $60 and would typically remain in print for 4 to 5 years. Students could purchase a used textbook for anywhere from $25 to $35.

“Then along came a rapidly escalating rate of videotapes, CDs, DVDs and now cloud-based digital ancillaries, including publisher-provided services, along with a shorter unnecessary turnaround of editions every two years.” Schrock says he actually asked a book publisher’s rep about this issue. The rep replied that the problem was not the standard, print textbook but the addition of the “bells and whistles.” The publisher needed to cover the cost of the electronic expenses for the schools that wanted that option.

“It is ironic that the high cost of printed books is not the printed books, and unfortunately, all evidence at our schools is that the students do not use very much, if any, of these bells and whistles.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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