Market pressure builds to provide alternatives to costly textbooks

No readers like this yet.
open up

A report issued by the United States Government Accountability Office on June 6 confirms a trend of the educational publishing industry: textbook costs to students at higher education institutions are rising 6% per year on average, and have risen 82% over the last decade. The study, ordered by Congress, looks at the efforts of publishers and colleges to increase the availability of textbook price information and "unbundled" buying options as required under provisions in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HEOA). The GAO also interviewed faculty regarding benefits of this transparency and offering of new options for students purchasing course materials.

What they found

Findings of the study indicated that faculty are more aware of textbook affordability issues than they used to be, though they see the appropriateness of materials as the most important factor when it comes to choosing resources to use in a course. HEOA requires publishers to include information about textbook prices when marketing to faculty, including wholesale prices and copyright dates of previous versions. While the report finds that publishers have passively made this information available through their websites and other materials, the GAO did not investigate whether publishers are actively providing the information to faculty as required by law. Making this information not only available, but highly visible, is the best way to support and equip faculty to consider textbook costs and potentially explore more affordable and flexible textbook options.

The study also finds that textbook price transparency helped students save money, particularly because of the information colleges and universities posted in course catalogs. Of the 150 institutions the GAO reviewed, 81% provided textbook information online during the months leading up to the fall 2012 semester. This allowed students the opportunity to consider the costs associated with each course and the time to seek cost-cutting alternatives like used books and renting. But even with this relief, textbook prices continue to reach into the $200-and-more range for high-enrollment courses. The end goal of the HEOA price transparency provisions is to pressure publishers into lowering their prices for good.

What this means

As Nicole Allen, Affordable Textbooks Advocate for the Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs) explained, "Overall, the report shows that the HEOA requirements have helped students and professors become more aware of textbook costs, and this awareness builds market pressure that will eventually lead to fairer prices and more affordable alternatives. Although right now publishers stubbornly continue driving prices skyward, they can only ignore the call for affordability for so long."

The report mentions other textbook affordability efforts that colleges and universities explored alongside providing textbook price information. About two-thirds of the schools that the GAO interviewed offered an institutional rental program, and many offered price information for alternate formats, such as e-textbooks. For example, the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges' Open Course Library, which offers Open Educational Resources (OER) and other low cost materials for the system's 81 largest courses, has saved students $5.5 million to date—about three times as much as the program cost. As the shift of resources towards efforts that provide more options to students and faculty is seen across the US and in other areas around the world, we anticipate more participation in communities around OER. Which is a great thing.

Next steps towards affordable textbooks

The HEOA requirements for textbook price transparency were a good first step, but there's more work to do to solve rising textbook costs and lack of flexibility in choosing learning materials for courses. OER, like those created, revised, and shared in the Open Course Library have the potential to significantly offset these costs while at the same time providing more options for faculty and students to customize textbooks and other courseware to their needs. CC believes that OER is the next step in providing affordable, flexible, and truly open educational opportunities for students and faculty, allowing global citizens to better choose their own learning pathways.

A joint statement issued by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on June 7th affirms the potential for OER as a solution: "As the GAO report suggests, transparency alone isn't enough. Students need more access to high-quality, affordable options that challenge the current price structure set by a handful of publishers. Open Educational Resources, which include high-quality open textbooks that are free for faculty to adopt and students to use, offer a promising step forward. With many recent technology advancements it will be important for Congress to continue to learn more about the textbook sector to ensure that there are accountability mechanisms in place to protect students and taxpayers."

The Student PIRGs announcement about the study is here.

The full report of the GAO's study can be found here.

And lastly, a podcast with a member of GAO's staff that led this study is here.

Originally published on and republished using Creative Commons.

User profile image.
I’m an Instructional Designer based in the Bay Area of California. I’m currently interning at Creative Commons, assisting with a study involving open data policy for the sciences. I’m an advocate of open and am on a personal mission to see shared knowledge and smarter learning design improve the world.


I still don't understand why e-texts are only slightly cheaper than regular dead-tree versions....greed?

Greed or not adjusting to changes in the marketplace fast enough, though there are some exceptions. A few years ago, I was pleasantly surprised when the Kindle edition of the textbook for a Research Methods course I took cost about $30. A used print copy from the university's bookstore was about $90 and a new copy was over $150. (The e-book version for the Nook ran about $60.) Granted, you can't sell back a Kindle book, but, as is typical, the new edition of this overpriced text came out before the end of the semester, so the bookstore wouldn't buy back the print editions anyway.

Because the cost is mostly not in the paper. While there is some savings in production and delivery its not as large as most people think. The real costs are in the content and digital content will eventually be far more robust and cost more to produce and maintain. Printing and shipping costs are fairly small. Right now digital course materials are priced to compete with used books and rental. That discounting will eventually go away over time. Moving digital and moving mobile is not lowering costs for most consumers as it matures rather its shifting costs -look at where new mobile banking fees are going.

The price of textbooks is only one part of the overall cost of taking a course. With some textbooks, the publisher hosts current edition course media/quizzes on their own servers and students must purchase access codes to engage with the online material. The faculty member benefits because course management is easier and they don't have to create quizzes/tests; the publisher benefits through recurring revenue each semester without having to produce new editions of the textbooks.

Nicole Allen says textbook publishers can only ignore the call for affordability for so long. That sounds unrealistically optimistic to me. Record companies didn't lower their prices. Popular book and magazine publishers haven't lowered their prices. I don't see any colleges and universities lowering their fees, for that matter. Consumers are beginning to realize that demanding lower prices does not get lower prices, and that the vaunted marketplace almost never works in their favor.

Record companies might not have lowered their prices on albums, but digital distribution has caused there to be a shift away from having to purchase a whole album to being able to purchase just the tracks you wanted for $0.99 each. Many ebooks on are priced in between the MSRP for the hardcover and the paperback and come out at the same time as the hardcover, so going digital would save the consumer money.

Perhaps you're right in saying it is "unrealistically optimistic", after all these are the publishers who think they actually need to put out new editions of Algebra textbooks every few years, but things <em>can</em> change. For example, digital only textbooks from the publishers would result in a new sale with every purchase (there would be no used book market). This would be a change in the market. Would it, in isolation, be in the favor of the consumer? Maybe, or maybe not (honestly, for this particular change, probably not.) But quality open textbooks would provide competition and change the market. I've already taken several courses where the textbook was made freely available online by the author (e.g., Peter Baker's <a href="">The Electronic Introduction to Old English</a>.) This saved me money while still providing me with something that could rightly be called a cohesive textbook (as opposed to the instructor having to take the time to reinvent the wheel using a hodgepodge of other sources.)

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.