Tuesday, January 28, 2014 News

Survey Says: Textbook Costs a Threat to Student Success

Open Education

With spring semester underway, students nationwide have suffered through sticker shock at how much textbook cost. But does that mean every student has access to their textbooks?

Survey says: no.

A new report released yesterday by consumer advocacy group U.S. PIRG found that 65% of about 2,000 students say they have opted out of buying (or renting) a required textbook because of the price. Textbooks have become an increasingly significant part of the overall college cost debate, as prices have jumped 82% since 2002 and the average annual cost of books and supplies has grown to $1,207.

The report adds to the growing body of evidence linking textbook costs with negative academic consequences. Textbooks are meant to help students learn but can have the opposite effect if the cost is out of reach. According to the survey, 94% of the students who had skipped buying textbooks believed it could hurt their performance in class. Furthermore, 48% of the students said that they had altered which classes they take due to textbook costs, either taking fewer classes or different classes.

As I told US News & World Report, whether it is doing worse in a course without access to the required textbook or taking longer to reach graduation, it is clear that the issue of textbook costs has evolved from a simple financial concern to a threat to student success. If the current system cannot provide every student with affordable access to the course materials they need, then we need a better system.

The ideal alternative is open textbooks and, more broadly, open educational resources (OER) – academic materials that everyone can use, adapt and share freely. Open textbooks virtually solve access and affordability issues because the content is available online at no cost, free to download to laptops or tablets, and affordable to purchase in print.

Not surprisingly, the survey also found that 82% of the students surveyed said they would do significantly better in a course if the textbook was available free online and buying a hard copy was optional (in other words, an open textbook). Case studies at both Houston Community College and Virginia State University confirm this finding: classes using open textbooks tended to have higher grades and better course completion rates.

The report recommends that colleges, governments, faculty and publishers advance the creation and use of open textbooks to solve the textbook cost crisis. Yesterday students involved in campus PIRG chapters called for these solutions by tweeting photos and messages with the hashtag #textbookbroke.

SPARC is working to expand support for open textbooks through the Affordable College Textbook Act, which would establish open textbook pilot programs at colleges and universities across the country. Earlier today, the bill’s Senate sponsors Sens. Durbin and Franken circulated a Dear Colleague letter in Congress citing the report findings. See SPARC’s page on the Affordable College Textbook Act for more information on the bill and how you can take action.

Download the full report “Fixing the Broken Textbook Market” (released under a CCBY license) from the U.S. PIRG website here.

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