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Textbook Costs on the Decline

stacks of coins on a textbook

Multiple signs indicate that the cost of textbooks is inching down.

According to new data released by, a comparison website that tracks 8 million college textbooks, the average price of a textbook dropped by $10 between January 2017 to January 2018 — "the first sign of depreciation in years," according to the company.

Simultaneously, the National Association of College Stores issued its latest results from a twice-annual survey of college students in the United States and Canada and found that course material spending had shrunk by 31 percent over the last decade, from an average of $701 in the 2007-2008 academic year to $484 last year.

The CampusBooks analysis of its data also found that while college students seem to live digital lifestyles, they still have a fondness for printed textbooks. The company said that the sale of used books from August 2016 through January 2018 represented an average of 45 percent of all sales, while new books accounted for 30 percent and textbook rentals covered another 20 percent. Also, while digital book sales are on the rise (up 37 percent since 2016), they only account for 2 percent of overall sales in the CampusBooks tally.

The NACS report, which offered a much wider examination of student buying practices, found annual course material spending down across the board between the 2016-2017 school year, when it was $576, and 2017-2018, when it dropped to $484. A student's major influenced how much he or she spent on average for course materials. While those in the health professions spent an average of $597 in 2017-2018, those in engineering spent $455, those in fine arts put out $372 and those in mathematics paid $357.

The survey was handled by OnCampus Research, the research arm of NACS, which fielded valid responses from 34,530 students in 63 two- and four-year schools.

The percentage of students who had all of their course materials the first day of classes dropped to 37 percent in spring 2018 from 40 percent in spring 2017. Just under a quarter of students this past term (24 percent) said they had no course materials at the start of their courses. The primary reason? They wanted to see if they really needed the materials, cited by 81 percent of those who had some of their course resources and 69 percent of those who none. The complaint that course materials were "too expensive" was cited as the reason for the delay by 25 percent of those who had none of their course resources at the start of the term. A larger share in that group had already ordered the materials and were still waiting for them to arrive (37 percent) or didn't know what was needed (30 percent).

The survey found that 8 percent of all students didn't obtain course material at all due to cost during fall 2017. The main reason was cost, mentioned by 58 percent of respondents, followed by a sense that the materials wouldn't be needed, cited by 34 percent.

graph showing campus bookstore as the most popular source of textbooks

Campus stores remain top choice for students buying course materials. Source: "Student Watch: Attitudes & Behaviors toward Course Materials," published by the National Association of College Stores.

The purchase of course materials is still the preferred mode over other acquisition practices. In fall 2017, 85 percent of students said they acquired either new or used materials through purchase — a number that has remained "stable" since fall 2014. Forty-four percent also rented their curriculum, 18 percent downloaded them and 12 percent borrowed them.

The use of free content is on the rise. While 25 percent of students in spring 2017 said they obtained at least one free unit for a course, that had grown to 32 percent by spring 2018. A common source: the professor; 29 percent of respondents reported downloading or accessing materials from professor-provided websites, and 28 percent used professor-provided materials. A portion of students — 17 percent — admitted hitting torrent or peer-to-peer sharing sites to get access to free course materials.

The preferred format is still print — whether new or used — for a large percentage. However, the influence of digital is on the rise, while print is declining. For spring 2018, while a quarter of students purchased digital materials (up from 19 percent in spring 2017), 60 percent said they purchased new print textbooks (down from 63 percent in spring 2017) and 55 percent said they bought used print books (down from 64 percent from the previous year).

Interestingly, more than 70 percent of students said they thought that getting a used print textbook was their cheapest alternative, while 28 percent said getting a digital textbook would be cheapest. Those in mathematics majors and computer science majors were the likeliest majors to think digital content provided the cheapest alternative.

When students were asked to specify the reasons for their print or digital preferences, the top reasons cited for digital course materials were portability (referenced by 57 percent), lower prices (46 percent) and easier navigation (39 percent). Print proponents said they found print easier to study from, specified by 51 percent of students, easier to navigate (41 percent) and easier to read than a screen (38 percent).

The survey also asked about inclusive access, where the cost of materials is included with tuition. The greatest level of interest was shown to programs structured to include the cost of materials in tuition if the materials were cheaper; 77 percent of students said that approach was "very" or "extremely" interesting to them. Where materials weren't necessarily cheaper, student interest was lower; just 47 percent said they'd be very or extremely interested. And where the materials were cheaper but digital, students had the least excitement; just 32 percent expressed positive interest.

An infographic of the NACS findings is available on the association's website. The complete report is available for purchase as well.

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