What is the impact of textbook prices on students?

written by Tim Bowersox and Kate Pitcher

It is a commonly heard story on campus that students are feeling the pressure when it comes to textbook prices.  Anecdotally, librarians and faculty have heard about many students’ dropping or avoiding classes because they cannot afford the required texts — not because of content, interest or availability. Next week, Milne Library will be holding a series of events related to the open access movement and how we can redefine the impact of free and open resources on higher education.

How do textbook prices impact college students?

imageWe do know that nationally, students bear a high cost to attend college, but how much do textbook costs factor into these budgets?  In 2012, the Florida Student Textbook Survey was conducted by the Florida Virtual Campus (a network of public colleges in Florida). The researchers interviewed over 20,000 students from all 11 of Florida’s state universities.

Among the many survey goals, officials wanted to find out how much Florida students spent on textbooks during the Spring 2012 semester; the frequency with which students buy new textbooks; how students are affected by the cost of textbooks; what formats students prefer; and additionally, what students’ perceptions of the availability of textbooks in their institutions’ libraries actually is.

In brief, the researchers found several trends:

  • Textbook costs continue to take a toll on students financially and academically

  • Students use various means to reduce costs of textbooks, including purchasing books from a source other than the campus bookstore, renting textbooks, purchasing used books, selling their used books, and using copies on reserve at the campus library

  • Some institutions’ libraries provide textbooks for checkout, extending a lifeline to students who cannot afford to purchase a textbook

How Geneseo students feel about textbooks

Much of this was seen in our own informal polling of our students.  During the Spring 2012 semester, we conducted a brief survey to gage the attitudes of SUNY Geneseo students toward textbook prices. Though the response rate was small, we did receive some candid feedback:

“Sometimes, it makes me not want to take a class. I’m somewhat funding myself, so high costs of textbooks are a deciding factor for me.” — Sophomore

“Forced to get old outdated versions where the page numbers dont match up because buying the right/new version is too expensive.” — Junior

“I have to really think ahead and plan ahead to make sure I will have the money to buy my textbooks. There have been classes I haven’t taken because the cost of the textbooks has been too high for me to afford.” — Junior

“It is very expensive to buy textbooks. Generally my professors are honest about whether or not we will use the text during class, but sometimes I go through a whole semester without even opening it. Textbook buy-back stinks because I barely get a fraction of what I initially paid. Basically, it is an incredibly expensive addition to the already incredibly expensive cost of furthering my education. “ — Junior

“I had a work study job this year to cover various expenses, but with the costs of textbooks, I rarely had cash to spend. My parents are helping pay for my college education and they too are financially strained by how expensive the textbooks can be in addition to everything else we need to pay for.” — Freshman

Milne Library can’t do it alone

In an effort to mitigate some of the burden of purchasing textbooks, Milne Library has developed a Textbooks on Reserve collection. Currently, the collection consists of 787 unique titles — that’s roughly 72% of the unique titles assigned by faculty for the Fall 2013 semester. Although some of the titles were already in our collection, we rely heavily upon donations from faculty and students in order to stay current. Why? Because we simply cannot afford to buy the latest edition of each textbook every year.

FreeTextbookOur Textbook on Reserve collection also has limited reach. In order to ensure that as many students as possible can access the collection, students can only check out one book at a time for 4 hours. Since we often only have one or two copies of a book, not every student can access a copy when they need it most: often the night before an assignment is due.

Some students also try to borrow their textbooks through Information Delivery Services (IDS). However, this also has limitations. Many libraries do not allow us to borrow textbooks through interlibrary loan. We are often forced to borrow older or alternate editions. As with all materials we borrow from other libraries, due dates are often limited to 4-6 weeks — meaning students have to return the items before the end of the semester.

Where do we go from here?

We want to know your thoughts. Please respond to our blog post with your comments – how do textbook prices impact your educational experience at Geneseo?  What are some strategies or alternatives used to avoid buying a textbook?

Download and read the 2012 Florida Student Textbook Survey

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