From The Archives

Why are textbooks so expensive?

Jake Dugan


Content Manager


College is expensive – any student or parent who has a child in college knows that.  Year after year tuition prices go up and the cost of housing rises.  Minimum wages in many states do not rise to meet these new higher costs, and currently, inflation is exacerbating all of these challenges.  Picture this: you are a college student and the fall semester is about to start.  You have filled out your FAFSA, received financial aid and scholarship money, and paid your tuition and housing costs either on your own or with the help of student loans or family members.  You are finally ready to start the semester after spending thousands of dollars to attend your school.  Then you realize you still need to buy textbooks.  

On average for a full academic year, a college student at a four-year institution in the United States will pay around $1200 for textbooks.  After all of the other costs of attending college, the price of textbooks can hit students hard.  25% of college students report that they worked extra hours just to afford the cost of their textbooks.  That statistic may not be too disturbing, but most of us have encountered a situation where we had to work more to pay for something. What is disturbing is that 11% of college students reported that they skipped meals in order to save money to cover the cost of their textbooks.  

This problem does not seem to be improving.  Between 1977 and 2015, the United States dollar saw an inflation rate of about 290%.  In the same time, the cost of textbooks rose by over 1,000%.  The rising cost of textbooks outpaced inflation by over 200%.  

When taking a look at the college textbook industry, you’ll find that over 80% of the market is controlled by just three companies: Pearson, Cengage, and McGraw-Hill.  While the hard-copy textbook market is declining by a rate of around 5% every year, these companies are finding ways to continue increasing profits.  One way they do this is through online access to course materials.  Presently, many students pay for “access codes” for their textbooks and other materials.  Often, the cost of these access codes is comparable to the cost of hard-copy materials, however many of these codes expire at the end of the semester or the school year.  This prevents students from recouping the cost of their textbooks by selling them at the end of the semester, and allows textbook companies to further increase profits because they do not have to publish hard copies and can just sell access to online material.

What do college professors think about the cost of textbooks? Based on polling, 82% of professors think textbooks and other course materials cost too much.  However, textbook companies make it challenging for professors to try and address the issue of cost; 77% of faculty report that in meetings with textbook publishers the cost of materials is not volunteered.  When professors directly ask about the price of course materials, only 38% report that they were given a direct answer.  The textbook publishing companies continue to make it challenging to address the issue not only for students but for professors as well.

So, what can we do about this issue?  Many college students find creative ways to avoid paying full price for textbooks.  Some students find copies for free online, which is legally questionable.  Some students choose to rent their books from other companies such as Amazon or choose to purchase used copies.  Other students choose to share the cost of a book with peers.  All of these solutions can help to decrease the direct cost to each student, but these strategies do not address the ever-increasing amount of course materials that are online.  

One way to help offset the cost of textbooks is by talking to professors about using free materials for their courses.  This can be challenging, as often courses are designed around specific textbooks or other materials, however, some professors have chosen to utilize only free materials in their courses.  Additionally, many professors will allow students to photocopy textbooks that they own, instead of forcing students to purchase the textbooks for themselves.