As Textbook Companies Try New Options, Many Students Say Price Is...

Digital Learning

As Textbook Companies Try New Options, Many Students Say Price Is Biggest Factor

By Tina Nazerian and Jeffrey R. Young     Jan 9, 2018

As Textbook Companies Try New Options, Many Students Say Price Is Biggest Factor

Professors assign textbooks (or other materials) that they view as required to succeed in their courses, but some students say they go in with a wait-and-see attitude: They delay a week or two into the semester, and then obtain only the materials that seem truly necessary to them.

“I try to read the vibe of the teacher and see how it’s going to be,” says Ursula Abdala, a senior at University of Texas at Arlington. “If I feel that one book will save my life this semester, I’ll break down and buy it,” she says. “I’m usually broke.”

When she and other college students do decide to buy these days, they face an increasingly diverse and often confusing range of choices. Besides just new and used print options from the campus bookstore, students might have their pick between print and digital, buying or renting, and in some cases, buying a subscription from a publisher that gives them access to multiple titles by that provider.

One crucial part of the decision is out of the students’ hands, of course, since it is the professor who decides what textbook or material to assign—or whether to skip commercial textbooks altogether and assign a free or low-cost open educational resource, or OER.

Forrest Spence, an assistant professor of the practice at the department of economics at the University of Notre Dame, thinks the textbook market is similar to the healthcare market in that way. He says physicians have more information than their patients, and may have financial incentives to over-provide or under-provide care, depending on how they’re being compensated. Likewise, in the textbook market, those assigning the textbooks aren’t the ones who actually have to buy them. And that “almost certainly” makes professors much less price sensitive than you would expect in a market where the person deciding what to buy actually has to pay for it.

What do students these days think of this changing landscape? EdSurge asked a half dozen students to share their buying habits and their views. Answers varied by the student’s major and type of college they attended, and of course it’s impossible to generalize about something as diverse as student views on anything. But we’ve included highlights from the conversations below to get a sense of how at least a sampling of students see the issues.

Looking For Options

Romina Gupta, a sophomore economics and politics major at Mount Holyoke College, says her professors assign a mix of print and digital reading. A lot of the academic readings in her economics classes are from sources like JSTOR, a digitized library of scholarly journals, and for some of her politics classes, most of the readings are academic works of other professors, research on the subject and books.

Gupta says she normally gets her reading materials from either Amazon or from a used book event at the end of the year, where students sell their books to students who’ll be taking the classes the next semester. Additionally, she turns to a Facebook page for people who attend her university where students sell their books. And students can also get their books and reading sources from the campus library, she says.

Gupta says she tries to not buy textbooks, because they’re expensive—such as her economics textbook in a previous class, which cost $600. “I try to just rent them for the semester,” she says.

McKenzi Morris, a senior public relations major at Texas Tech University, notes that once she got into her upper level-courses, professors moved away from “full fledged textbooks,” and instead assigned books relating to the major. For those books, she says there aren’t as many options to rent the title, which “can make it a little more expensive.”

When professors do assign textbooks, she usually opts to rent them from Amazon or a similar service. But if she can’t find the textbook online or can’t get it quickly, she rents from one of the on-campus bookstores. If she does buy a textbook, it doesn’t really matter to her if it’s a digital or physical version.

Caleb Hylton, a senior majoring in information systems technology at Seminole State College of Florida, says his assigned reading is “a lot more digital.” He says he’s had professors say the textbook is just recommended and will scan the needed sections from the book, or will assign PDFs or a website from a third-party so students can complete assignments. If Hylton does need to buy a textbook, he does so at either the campus bookstore or Amazon.

Unlike Morris and Gupta, he prefers to buy, not rent. He enjoys owning things, he says, and it’s sometimes difficult for him to pay attention to “what has to go back and when.” He tends to buy used textbooks because they are cheaper.

Responding to Subscriptions

Some publishers have recently started offering subscription options for textbooks. Take Perlego, a UK-based company which gives users access to a library of content, including digital textbooks. And starting in August 2018, textbook publisher Cengage will let students access all of the company’s digital higher education materials for $119.99 a semester.

Such arrangements most benefit students when they need to buy more than one book by the same publisher, and several of the students we talked to said they paid little attention to which publishers they encountered in assigned texts, so they weren’t sure how much such offers could help.

“There might be cases in which it works—if it’s optional,” says Abdala, the student from UT Arlington. “Having an extra option is always good.”

Christina Forgette, a sophomore at the University Mississippi, says that what she liked about the idea is the ability to pay by the semester. She complained that one online textbook she encountered required her to buy a year-long pass when she only needed access for a semester.

Hylton also thinks it could be a good idea, but only because it encourages students “to have the ability to perhaps read other materials that they might not be taking but might have an interest in.”

But Gupta is more skeptical. She thinks subscription fee models could work for certain courses—for instance, if someone is a biology major and the university uses books from the same publisher that get progressively harder. But if a student is taking courses in different subjects, like she is, it’s not the best idea. Gupta also points out that at her school, professors have different preferences as to which types of books they want to use.

Limited Exposure to OER

Of the six students we talked to, only one had taken a class that used an Open Educational Resource, or OER in place of a commercial textbook.

Forgette says she was assigned an open textbook that her professor created for a writing course. “Because she wrote it, it was very personalized for the class,” she says. And she found no issues with the quality. “I thought it was just as helpful as any other textbook.”

Morris had never even heard of OERs, but after she was given a quick definition, she said she wishes she’d known about them and they seem like they could be beneficial for students if they can find what they need on them.

Hylton says OER materials make sense if they’re on something that’s timeless, but for something where there needs to be revisions, there’s no guarantee “that those revisions are actually going to be released in a timely fashion.”

Abdala said she had never encountered OER in her courses, but she trusts that her professors would vett any materials carefully before assigning them. “Before I take a class I do research on the faculty,” she says. “And if it’s somebody that’s a good professor, I’m sure that they would not settle for something that is not good material.”

Student Advice to Publishers

We asked the students what advice they have for textbook publishers.

Morris wants them to keep in mind that they’re marketing to college students who “generally are not made out of money” and are getting the textbooks because “they’re being required” and not because they’re seeking them out or want to read them on a daily basis.

Hiral Mistry, a second-year student studying finance at Houston Community College, also mentioned cost, saying she wants publishers to stop making access codes to online supplements so expensive.

Hylton, who says he was part of a Cengage student advisory council about a year ago, says the one thing he wanted them to know was they need to make sure the information in textbooks is relevant, accurate and shows both sides of the argument.

Gupta wants the professors and experts in the field writing the textbooks to present material as if the person reading it is coming into the topic cold. “A lot of times they’re writing from a point of view where things are obvious,” Gupta says, “and sometimes I don’t think things are obvious to students who are just learning material.”

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