That Other Reason Students Spend Less On Course Material

Exactly how much do college students spend on course materials?

How about $1,200 a year? That was the amount of money most often provided in response to the above question. In the past year $1,200 was used frequently in the news media as a result of a 2014 U.S. PIRG study titled “Fixing the Broken Textbook Market“.

However, that figure was challenged in 2015 by Phil Hill in a post titled “How Much Do College Students Actually Pay for Textbooks“. According to his analysis, Hill stated “the data tells us is that the answer is that students spend on average $600 per year on textbooks, not $1,200”. While the exact amount that students spend on course material each year can be debated, what we do know is that the reason for any drop in spending is not owing to the cost of the textbooks. Even Hill acknowledged that retail textbook prices were rising.

So what’s happening? It appears that students are spending less on textbooks. According to a new report from the National Association of College Stores offering data on student expenditures, college students are spending less on course materials in 2014 than they did in 2009. Spending is down by 20 percent. Why?

It’s a number of factors: rental textbooks; faculty awareness about the cost of textbooks; more open educational resources. You might even point to the increase in students who will simply refuse to buy an expensive textbook for their course. They might borrow a friend’s copy or just do without it – surely not a good thing for student learning.

So students appear to be spending less, not because the cost of textbooks has dropped, but it’s owing to students and faculty changing their textbook behavior as the cost of textbooks continues to rise. Students also continue to use the college bookstore as their primary sources for purchases and rentals.

What’s the missing factor in accounting for this drop in spending? Academic libraries – and I’m not talking about the ones where they buy textbooks for students and put them on reserve. What’s making a difference is the campus leadership role many academic libraries are taking in promoting the use of open educational resources and licensed library content as alternate learning material. That allows faculty to offer a new approach to learning material for their courses. As the number of faculty who eliminate textbooks outright increases, you would naturally expect to find students making fewer purchases and rentals. Let’s see if we Blended Librarians can contribute to that effort.

If you need more information or inspiration, take some time and listen to the archive of our 2015 webcast with Quill West on “Becoming Open Education Leaders“. There is great opportunity here for librarians to make a difference at their institutions.

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