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Why are college textbooks so expensive?

With student and faculty complaints about the price of college textbooks on the rise, the California Student Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG)', the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG) and the OSPIRG Foundation conducted a survey of the most widely assigned college textbooks in the fall of 2003 at 10 public colleges and universities in California and Oregon. Student volunteers and staff also interviewed 156 faculty and 521 students about the cost of college textbooks and their purchasing practices. Key findings from this survey include:

College Textbooks are Expensive and Getting Even More Expensive

  • College students will spend an average of $898 per year on new and used textbooks in 2003-04, based on surveys of University of California (UC) students in the fall of 2003. This represents almost 20 percent of the average tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year colleges nationwide. In contrast, a 1997 UC survey found that students spent an average of $642 on college textbooks in 1996-97.

College Textbooks Publishers Add Bells and Whistles that Drive Up the Price of College Textbooks; Most Faculty Do Not Use These Materials

  • Half of all college textbooks now come "bundled," or shrink-wrapped with additional instructional materials such as CD-ROMs and workbooks. Students rarely have the option of buying the college textbooks "a la carte" or without additional materials.
  • In the one instance that a college textbook was available both bundled and unbundled (only the textbook), the bundled version was more than twice as expensive as the unbundled version of the same college textbook.
  • Sixty-five (65) percent of faculty "rarely" or "never" use the bundled materials in their college courses.

College Textbooks Publishers Put New Editions on the Market Frequently, Often With Very Few Content Changes, Making the Less Expensive, Used College Textbooks Obsolete and Unavailable

  • Seventy-six (76) percent of faculty report that the new college textbooks editions they use are justified "never" to "half the time." Forty (40) percent of faculty report that the new college textbooks editions are "rarely" to "never" justified.
  • New college textbooks cost $102.44 on average, 58 percent more expensive than the average price of used textbooks, $64.80.
  • Fifty-nine (59) percent of college students who searched for used textbooks for the fall 2003 quarter/semester were unable to find even one used textbook for their classes.

The production and pricing of college textbooks merits scrutiny from educators and lawmakers because they affect the quality and affordability of higher education. As this report shows, the cost of college textbooks is a growing expense for students. The high cost is primarily due to publishers producing new textbook editions like clockwork, regardless of how much new educational content exists, and including expensive bells and whistles, such as CD-ROMs, that professors rarely find useful. The more expensive new editions force the older, less-expensive used textbooks off the market.

Publishers should produce more affordable, quality college textbooks. They also should offer faculty and students the option to purchase college textbooks unbundled and provide faculty with more information on the company's materials, their prices, intended length of time on the market and substantive content differences from previous textbook editions. Faculty should use their decision-making power to demand substance over bells and whistles and should consider cost and accessibility of previous editions secondary only to educational value when selecting college textbooks for their courses.