Fact Checking How Much Do College Students Actually Pay For Textbooks? 2015 > 2016 Phil Hill

Fact Checking Sources of data on College Students spending on Textbooks 2015 > 2016

About The New Florida Virtual Campus Survey On Textbooks
Posted on October 25, 2016 by Phil Hill

Reprise: How Much Do Community College Students Actually Pay For Textbooks?
Posted on July 28, 2016 by Phil Hill

Nicole Allen – 2013 – Make Textbooks Affordable Campaign Strategy Student PIRGs Surveys – S13 Textbooks Project Packet_0.pdf

Cable Green Updated Keynote Slides November 2014

How Much Do College Students Actually Pay For Textbooks?
Posted on March 25, 2015 by Phil Hill

Postscript on Student Textbook Expenditures: More details on data sources
Posted on March 27, 2015 by Phil Hill

About the Diverging Textbook Prices and Student Expenditures
Posted on March 30, 2015 by Phil Hill

Textbook Rentals: The Biggest Change In Student Spending
Apr 29, 2015  By: Phil Hill

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About The New Florida Virtual Campus Survey On Textbooks

As long-time readers know, I strongly believe that the national discussion about the costs of textbooks and course materials is more productive when we focus on actual student behaviors and impacts, rather than artificial numbers used by many organizations. There may be short-term benefit from claiming or implying that the average college student spends $1200 or more per year on textbooks, but the reality is closer to $650. See “How Much Do College Students Actually Pay For Textbooks?” for more details, thanks in particular to information from NACS.

The second-best source available on actual student expenditures on textbooks and course materials is the bi-annual survey from the Florida Virtual Campus (FLVC), which serves Florida’s state colleges, universities, and K-12 districts. Two weeks ago they released the third survey “2016 Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey”, a study of more than 22,000 students in the public colleges and universities. This report is particularly informative for asking questions about the impact of textbook costs – what do students end up doing. That is the interesting question.

The whole report is worth reading, but I’d like to highlight two key points. The first is confirmation that the average actual spending on college textbooks is in the $600 – $650 per year range. In the FLVC survey, students spend just over $300 in one semester on textbooks.

flvs-spending

Students, of course, are spending less on textbooks not because they are getting cheaper but because they are finding alternatives. In Michael’s post “The Great Unbundling of Textbook Publishers”, he described this dynamic.

So the textbook publishers have been diversifying out of print in higher education for some time, even though it has been a slow process and even though many of them are still pretty book-centric in their thinking. But that process is going to accelerate because we are reaching an inflection point in the commodification of content. Students are getting better and better all the time at avoiding buying the textbook. Meanwhile, market options proliferate and improve. Textbook rental companies are getting four or five semesters of rental out of one book, which is four or five semesters’ worth of sales that publishers are missing. Publishers have responded by offering their own rental services and low-priced options, but these are all defensive actions.

But this alternative behavior is not all good, and in fact the FLVC survey shows just how harmful textbook pricing is. Students were asked:

Q: In your academic career, has the cost of required textbooks caused you to:

[list of options, check all that apply]

Their answers to this question have been fairly consistent with previous surveys, with this year’s results:

flvs-impact

This chart not only shows the largest negative impact of textbook pricing falls on students seeking a two-year degree, with graduate students on the opposite end. Students choose to not take courses (or drop out, or fail) due to textbook pricing at a very high rate.

Implementing new models that directly address the costs of textbooks can directly impact student success outcomes. It’s good to have this report from Florida to provide harder numbers to back up assumptions. Kudos to FLVC for putting out this report.

 

 

  • Don Gorges says:

    __Oct 21 TJ Bliss tweeted this survey’s Key Finding 1:
    “The high cost of textbooks is negatively impacting student access, success, and completion.”

    In response, I tweeted a suggestion:
    “Survey data should include student’s budget and itemized fixed and discretionary expenditures for an analysis of textbooks’ impact”
    My tweet-sized suggestion was too brief I suppose, but there was swift reaction . . . “You are blocked from following @tjbliss and viewing @tjbliss’s Tweets.”

    This Survey is an opportunity to gain specific data that would be useful and actionable – “The high cost of textbooks [specific data] is negatively impacting student [specific data] access, success, and completion.”

    “In your academic career, has the cost of required textbooks caused you to. . ” may be a leading question when the textbook price is unknown [$50-$100-$300?] or in assuming the cost is “too much” “can’t afford” – for some Students the response likely is “I had money but didn’t see the value in making the purchase”

    “The 2016 Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey was conducted to help education leaders and policy makers better understand how textbook and course material costs are impacting student perceptions, academic decisions, progress, and perceived value of educational resources.”

    To be able to achieve these objectives the survey should seek useful data on the respondents’ financial circumstances, priorities and perceptions impacting their purchasing decisions, given that there are multiple demographic profiles to define within this group of 22,000 Students.

    Free textbooks is not the one and only solution.

  • Pingback: Don Gorges Archive of LinkedIn Posts & Links October 24 to October 29 | Don Gorges
  • Phil Hill says:

    Don, I understand your point, but . . .

    No survey is perfect, and there are always ideas to gather additional information. The FLVC survey is laudable by getting broad responses (22k) while sharing their methodology. I strongly suspect that if the survey asked for “respondents’ financial circumstances, priorities and perceptions impacting their purchasing decisions”, they likely would not have received so many responses. Meanwhile, the report openly shares the methodology and questions so that people can do as you have and note the limitations of the results. Point is – this survey is probably the best one I have seen with broad responses to questions on impacts. Useful data but not perfect.

    As for referenced conclusion that free textbooks are the one and only solution. I agree with you, but that seems stated like taking down a straw man. Or perhaps in response not to the report or this post but to your former Twitter connection.

  • Don Gorges says:

    __Thanks, Phil, hopefully legislators see there is an opportunity in a survey to ask follow up questions in order to gain relevant information about student purchasing behaviour which may reveal a range of ways to increase student success. Perhaps, if all course syllabi were created to be helpful to students seeking savings by offering them options to the Faculty-recommended reading materials [aka required textbook] via a comprehensive list of reviewed and rated OER and alternative editions of commercial textbooks. Students and TA’s could [pay-it-forward] help their Faculty by doing the time consuming research throughout the semester to discover alternative resources and suggested materials to be Faculty-vetted and listed within their Course Syllabus.

     

     

 

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Reprise: How Much Do Community College Students Actually Pay For Textbooks?

[ed. The basic arguments in this post were covered here at e-Literate in 2015 and in The Chronicle more recently. The data has been updated into a new post based on recent news events.]

Last month the nonprofit advocacy group Achieving the Dream announced a new initiative to fund 38 community colleges who are willing to build entire programs with open educational resources. While this is a noble effort aimed at reducing financial barriers for students to get two-year degrees, the group perpetuated the same myth that has plagued higher education for years.

The annual costs of textbooks are about $1,300 per year for a full-time community college student and amount to about a third of the cost of an Associate’s degree.

In the Washington Post’s coverage, they add this description.

A community college reform group has selected a handful of schools in Virginia and Maryland to develop degree programs using open-source materials in place of textbooks, an initiative that could save students as much as $1,300 a year.

Are they right? Do community college textbooks cost “about $1,300 per year,” and is there a chance to help them save this amount? The short answer is no. Community college students actually spend just over half this amount — approximately $700 per year — despite the rising list prices of textbooks.

And for those who think that this is just a press release, no big deal, consider the cascading effect as media outlets take this number and run with it. The Google search for “college textbooks $1,300” generates one relevant result for the year prior to this press release and more than 100 results in the six weeks since, including prominent coverage in The Chronicle, the Washington Post, Forbes, Campus Technology, , Inside Higher Ed, PC Magazine, NBC News, and dozens of local stories at individual colleges or community news coverage. Note that the majority use the language of students spending $1,300 or colleges saving students $1,300. This will be relevant later in this post.

Google Search 2016

A closer look at data sources can explain the discrepancy in the myth of $1,300 and the reality of just over $700.

Achieving the Dream, like many other organizations that should know better, take their college textbook data from the College Board which doesn’t actually measure student spending for this category, just financial aid estimates based on old data and inflation adjustments.

This annual data source from the College Board estimates average undergraduate budgets for tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, transportation, and other expenses. The most recent books and supplies data ranges from $1,249 to $1,364, leading to the often-quoted $1,300 number.

College Board Spring 2016

But look at the note right below the chart:

Other expense categories are the average amounts allotted in determining the total cost of attendance and do not necessarily reflect actual student expenditures.

In other words, books and supplies estimates are not part of their actual survey data. The College Board is working to help people estimate the total cost of attendance; they are not providing actual source data on textbook costs, nor do they even claim to do so. Reporters and advocates just fail to read the footnotes or choose not to do so.

Both the College Board and National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS, official data for the National Center for Education Statistics, or NCES) currently use cost of attendance data created by financial aid offices of each institution, using the category “Books and Supplies”. There is no precise guidance from Education Department on the definition of this category, and financial aid offices use very idiosyncratic methods for this budget estimate. Some schools like to maximize the amount of financial aid available to students, so there is motivation to keep this category artificially high.

It turns out that in 2008 NCES actually used a student survey – asking them what they spent rather than asking financial aid offices for net price budget calculation. Yet NCES in its data book (page 130) fully acknowledges that the current books and supplies variable “variable is not comparable to the student-reported cost of books and supplies”.

As an example of how this data is calculated, see this guidance letter from the state of California [emphasis added].

The California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) has adopted student expense budgets, Attachment A, for use by the Commission for 2015-16 Cal Grant programs. The budget allowances are based on statewide averages from the 2006-07 Student Expenses and Resources Survey (SEARS) data and adjusted to 2015-16 with the forecasted changes in the California Consumer Price Index (CPI) produced by the Department of Finance.

In both cases (NPSAS guidance and California guidance), the last actual source of student data was almost a decade ago, updated each year with inflation adjustments. But student behaviors have changed dramatically in this time frame. They now have rental options, additional sources such as Amazon and Chegg, downloads both legal and illegal, and more recently students have become more price sensitive and increasingly willing to just not acquire the required course materials.

The College Board does, however, point people to one source that they use as a rough basis for their budgets.

According to the National Association of College Stores, the average price of a new textbook increased from $57 in 2007 to $65 in 2010 and to $79 in 2013. The gap between new and used book prices has increased over time, with the latter rising from $49 to $59 over these years.  (http://www.nacs.org/research/industrystatistics/higheredfactsfigures.aspx)

There is no dispute that text list prices have continued to rise. The primary source of public data for this question is the Consumer Price Index (CPI) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which shows that textbook prices has consistently risen approximately three times the rate of inflation.

But the more relevant question is what students actually spend on textbooks, or required course materials. Especially if you are making policy decisions intended to help students overcome affordability barriers. The best primary public source for how much students spend on textbooks comes from the National Association of College Stores, although there are other studies from Student Monitor that provide similar results. There are far more options today for getting textbooks than there used to be, and one choice – choosing not to acquire the course materials – is rapidly growing. According to Student Monitor, approximately 30 percent of students each year choose to not acquire every required college textbook.

The Student Watch: Attitudes & Behaviors toward Course Materials, 2015-2016 Report is based on survey results from nearly 42,000 students at 56 institutions. NACS sends their survey through approximately 20 – 25 member institutions to distribute to the full student population for that institution or a representative sample. This survey is meant to inform college bookstores, but the data set is much broader, asking students to report expenditures from all sources.

Their data shows that “for the 2015-2016 year, two-year students spent approximately $716 on their course materials, compared to the $543 spent by four-year students” and that student spending in this category has consistently dropped since 2007[1]. These results give a far different picture than those stories derived from College Board data.

NACS Expenditures Per Year 2016

None of this paints a flattering picture of the textbook publishing market, particularly as students who can least afford to end up paying more (those at two-year colleges, first-generation students). In addition, many students are forced into the choice of not acquiring a textbook that is actually needed for their class, thus sacrificing academic success in the name of personal economics. As described in the Chronicle post:

One problem, called out by Mike Caulfield on his blog, is that the students least likely to benefit from the new online and rental options are first-year, first-generation students. [snip]

Officials at NACS were kind enough to provide cross-tabs on two of their questions against sector and first-generation status. For Fall 2014, students were asked how much they spent on required course materials. First-generation students spend 10 percent more, acquire 6-percent-fewer textbooks, and end up paying 17 percent more per textbook than do non-first-generation students. This data could be used as a starting point for policy to solve this problem.

A second problem is noted by Tanya Joosten in a recent online discussion: “When low-income students look at the anticipated costs of attendance, it dissuades them from even applying or actually registering.”

A third problem is called out in a Florida report from 2012, which delves further into this issue of impacts of college costs on various groups. David Wiley, the co-founder and chief academic officer at Lumen Learning[2], provided an excellent analysis of these findings:

“Textbook costs cause students to occasionally or frequently take fewer courses (35 percent of students), to drop or withdraw from courses (24 percent), and to earn either poor or failing grades (26 percent). Regardless of whether you have historically preferred the College Board number or the student survey number, a third fact that is beyond dispute is that surveys of students indicate that the cost of textbooks negatively impacts their learning (or at least their grades) and negatively impacts their time to graduation (drops, withdraws, and credits).”

While I am entirely sympathetic to the need and desire to lower textbook and course material prices for students, no one is served well by misleading information. College administrators, faculty committees, and students have real decisions to make on controlling college costs, and we should eliminate scary numbers that just don’t reflect reality. Consider the unrealistic goal set by Achieving the Dream’s President and CEO in a Huffington Post column:

Developing degrees without textbook costs will help full-time community college students save approximately $1,300 each year, which amounts to about one third of the cost of an Associate’s degree.

You cannot claim to help students save $1,300 when they don’t actually spend that much today. One risk is that these lofty goals will never be met, at least for schools that ask their students for savings data, thus jeopardizing the program long-term or dissuading other schools from following suit. Another risk is that schools might declare victory using faulty data while their students become frustrated by not seeing these results or by changing their personal budgets based on unrealistic assumptions. As I stated in the Chronicle:

Let’s have a more student-focused discussion of what textbook costs mean — and who benefits from various attempts to lower the cost of course materials. As we do so, I think we’ll find that student-success metrics related to whether students can get timely access to required course materials will be more meaningful than focusing on the price listed at the bookstore.

(For those wanting to jump into the weeds on different data sources, see these two posts. For those wanting to understand the higher spending by different student groups, see this post at The Chronicle or this post.)

9 comments

_Student Monitor and the National Association of College Stores (NACS) Surveys Report College Students Spent an Average of $600 on Textbooks for 2015-2016 Academic Year – via AAP _ http://newsroom.publishers.org/surveys-reveal-college-students-spent-an-average-of-600-on-textbooks-for-2015-2016-academic-year/ _ Links to Research: _http://www.studentmonitor.com/s16/textbooks.pdf _ http://www.nacs.org/Portals/NACS/Uploaded_Documents/PDF/Research/IND.022.07.16_SW_KeyFindings.pdf _

__As described in the article, The Barnes and Noble Flat-rate Textbook Program Annual Costs is $550 so the 1000 Students at Lees-McRae College potentially save $750 each {$1300 – $550]. Which segment of the student pop. benefits most?
Where data suggests Students spend $700 on average, the X% of Students who now spends $1300 [all new print texts] would reduce costs to $550 _ the X% of Students who now spend $300 [used/rental etc] would increase costs to $550 _ http://www.lmc.edu/students/current/textbook_information.htm

__Thanks Phil, well done.   Ideally this message will get through to David Coleman President and Chief Executive Officer and Jeremy Singer Chief Operating Officer at The College Board and they will arrange to add necessary details into the College Board Student Budget information and incorporate relevant sources found in your research
Appreciate the feedback. While the College Board could still improve (in particular by referencing NACS data on actual expenditures and not just average list price in footnote), I do find that they describe the general nature of the data, at least in footnotes and additional information links. The people who really need to change behavior are OER advocates such as AtD. Secondarily it should be media types who swallow these numbers without asking any questions. If you could fix that, I’d appreciate it 🙂
+Phil Hill
Sure, Phil__ Hey TJ Bliss, please engage a Fact-Checking Truth-Meter (i.e. Phil) ensuring Hewlett Grantees do not misinform to mislead educators, policymakers and the public.   There, done 🙂

Phil Hill via Google+

New post that is really a reprise of previous posts, updated based on new reports and recent news events.

Spoiler alert:
You cannot claim to help students save $1,300 when they don’t actually spend that much today. One risk is that these lofty goals will never be met, at least for schools that ask their students for savings data, thus jeopardizing the program long-term or dissuading other schools from following suit. Another risk is that schools might declare victory using faulty data while their students become frustrated by not seeing these results or by changing their personal budgets based on unrealistic assumptions.

http://mfeldstein.com/reprise-how-much-community-college-students-actually-pay-textbooks/

Phil-

Great post. I still find it ironic that open access institutions tend to make access to course content an imposition for many students. But, you pose a great question (or two) that could result in an interesting research study. Maybe one has already been conducted of this nature, but I’m too lazy right now to check (truth be told). Possibly a watchdog like yourself could take this on.

It would be interesting to look at student textbook purchasing expenses nationally and then maybe break it down regionally, breaking it down even further into demographics.

1. In general, how much are students expected to spend on textbooks or other course materials their first semester in college?
2. In general, how much do students actually spend on textbooks or other course materials their first semester.

My hypothesis is that they probably tend to spend a number very similar to what the College Board claims. Once the students learn the system, and if they have the means to spend outside their fin aid, they probably tend to spend much less.

3. How much do first generation college students from low income families spend on textbooks or other course materials each semester?
4. Looking again at the above group, how much do they spend on textbooks or other course materials to earn a degree from a community college?

My hypothesis would be that considering it takes longer that 2 years for most students to earn their degree at a community college, and even longer for low income first-generation students, you will once again find yourself closer to the College Board number for degree completion.

I could be wrong, but that’s why we research, right?

Thanks for reposting this Phil, because I to struggle with the numbers that get tossed around, because they must vary depending on the learner.

Keep up the good work!

Mark McBride

Hi Phil,

Thanks for another excellent article on the average cost of college textbooks.

When one addresses this question, one has to consider carefully the denominator one uses when calculating average cost.

Your article interprets the question — ‘How much do textbooks cost community college students?” — in two different ways:

1. How much would an average community college student have to pay for textbooks if all community college students did indeed buy the textbooks assigned for their courses?

2. How much does the average community college student actually spend on textbooks?

The answer to both of these questions can be misleading if one does not consider carefully (and explain carefully) the denominator one uses in calculating average cost.

To see why, let’s take a related question: the cost of college tuition.

Say you have a country with one million college age students and just one school. That school charges everyone who attends one million dollars a year to do so. Since their tuition is rather high, only one student out of a million pays to attend college; the other 999,999 cannot afford to do so.

Now, if asked the rather vague question “what is the average cost of college” we have at least two ways to compute the average cost depending on how we choose to interpret the question.

The first interpretation assumes that the real question is: On average, how much does college cost per student for those students who actually do pay to go to college?

In this instance, because there is only one student in this category, the answer is one million dollars a year.

The second interpretation assumes that the real question is: How much do college age students actually spend on college?

In this instance, because there are one million college age students, the answer is one dollar a year.

One student pays one million dollars, and the other 999,999 students pay nothing. So, the average cost per college age student is one dollar (i.e. one million dollars divided by one million college age students).

IMO, for both the textbook and tuition questions, the answer one comes up with can be very misleading unless one considers carefully (and explains carefully) the nature of the denominator one uses in calculating average cost.

Cheers
Fred

Phil Hill

+Fred M Beshears You are right about the denominator, or spread of student payments. My focus in the article is on #2 (what they spend) and criticizes AtD for confusing #1 (everyone buys what is needed, one way or another) and #2 (what they actually spend) and really #3 (total costs only using purchase at list price). But my point is that if you want to “save students money” then you have to go with #2.

I do not believe we have any data on what you call the denominator for textbooks / required course materials. I could ask NACS if they have a sigma or quintile type data to summarize this denominator. I’ll go check . . .

11 Responses to Reprise: How Much Do Community College Students Actually Pay For Textbooks?

  1. Dan says:

    Another challenge with using faulty numbers. In order to “Save” $1300 per student, a school may choose to spend $800 per student. I know this is simplistic, but you get my point. The total spend we as students, parents, taxpayers have to support would go up.

  2. Phil:

    Would the focus of your reporting change if the debate were not around how much a student spends/saves on textbooks given current circumstances, but were instead about how much a student would spend/save on textbooks if they actually procured all the learning materials faculty assign to support their success?

    This seems like debates about healthcare or nutrition: the folks most affected spend less than they should to be healthy because they make hard choices that aren’t in their own best interest. Does that mean the current state of preventative healthcare and nutrition is blown out of proportion?

    I’m sorry to see this debate continue to take up space and generate “fiscal concern” when it seems like all our time could be better spent focusing on helping students and faculty use the best, most economical resources possible.

    Full disclosure: I’m one of the folks at Lumen Learning that dedicates my energy to solving the root problems of equity and success rather than recounting the beans.

  3. Phil Hill says:

    Nate, the issue for me is transparency and not a matter of student spending vs. ideal student spending. It’s a matter of using A but calling it B. Either A or B as an argument has merits if described accurately.

    I do think it is unhealthy for students to not acquire what they need due to costs. The solution is for groups to collect the data and describe it honestly. But this situation (hypothetical students getting all needed course materials) is not the the same thing as assuming that students ideally should acquire all material list price by purchase. There is a portion of the delta ($1300 to $700 roughly) that comes from unhealthy choices, but there is a larger portion that comes from rental and buying options that can be quite healthy. It’s both. And there is also a portion of assigned material that is not actually used in the class. It’s complex and has multiple variables. We need accurate descriptions, but if the claim is student spending, use student spending #s and then describe why this is not ideal.

    I also sorry to see the debate focus on these issues. But given my role as a blogger / watchdog, the problem would be solved by groups such as AtD and others describing real data fully and not trying to create good press releases at the expense of accuracy.

  4. xolotl says:

    Phil:

    As I hope you know: I respect and highly value your role as a blogger/watchdog!

    While one might spend time questioning the accuracy of statements by people working on behalf of educational affordability and student success, one might also spend time (as I know you have), questioning the motivations of folks calling for “accuracy,” when those folks have their own motivations for wanting to see different—lower—numbers. Or, we could put this “debate” to rest by refocusing on the underlying situation.

    I care less about the final accuracy of specific numbers than whether we have a credible idea of the general situation. I think we do.

    By my calculations (https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1nw-HyhcIijxMWGNo8YDcHrNYJIxXa6AKVBrAZrkAEoE/edit?usp=sharing), if we use a $700/year/student textbook cost number or a $1,300/year/student number, we end up with a range of something like $9B–$17B/year spent by US undergrads at accredited public and private nonprofit institutions (based on 2013 IPEDS data). That doesn’t include graduate students and students at specialty or for-profit institutions. As soon as we recognize that this is a Multiple Billions of Dollars Situation (MBDS), that’s motivation enough to me to stop counting the beans and focus on whether that kind of expenditure is worthy, and if not, what kind of interventions can be made to change it. If we need to say it’s a $9B/year issue instead of at $17B/year issue to put the matter to rest, then so be it. It’s a MBDS and I’m not sure we need to know more to move on.

    Are the right materials being assigned for student success?

    Is the cost of right materials appropriate?

    Are there more cost-effective ways to generate and deliver the right materials?

    How do we measure and intervene in these topics?

  5. Phil Hill says:

    I agree with your analysis and nominate you to write press releases and public policy documents for HE learning materials market. Well, I am serious about first part.

  6. xolotl says:

    In the words Sherman: “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”

  7. David says:

    You should factor in the cost of mandatory add-ons like WileyPlus. A student buys used textbooks for a discount then discovers she still has to shell out $100 per semester per title for the privilege of turning in homework. That’s not a separate expense. That’s part of the textbook purchase cost.

  8. Don Gorges says:

    __Thanks to Nate Angell for his thoughts and perspective as a Lumen Learning business developer. Nate feels “one might also spend time, questioning the motivations of folks calling for “accuracy,” when those folks have their own motivations for wanting to see different—lower—numbers.”
    As one of the contributor’s in this discussion, I’ll give my motivation for pointing out misleading media reports I’ve read over the years.
    I’m motivated by the believe that it’s in everyone’s best interest when the Public Policy changes by Governmental bodies and Institutions are guided by fully articulated, accurate information.

    The AFFORDABLE COLLEGE TEXTBOOK ACT is one case where US Legislators [quoting Phil] “use the language of students spending $1,300 or colleges saving students $1,300” as a result of mainstream media reporting and or OER lobbyists.
    This is a snip from their press release – “According to College Board, the average student at a four-year public institution of higher education spent $1,225 on college books and supplies during the 2014-15 academic year.” _ http://www.king.senate.gov/download/?id=D27574A8-3B92-4046-A1DB-BC44166379EF&CFID=9586&CFTOKEN=54307848&inline=file _

    Given the confusion that has resulted from misleading uses of The College Board Student Budget figures I believe it’s best for them to be as clear as possible about Books and Supplies and to cite the sources and costs of Items that are the basis of their Budget figures.

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March — April 2015

How Much Do College Students Actually Pay For Textbooks?

Phil Hill’s balanced perspective and analysis of the data tells us that students spend on average $600 per year on textbooks, not $1,200.

Sources: The National Association of College Stores (NACS) and The Student Monitor.

The College Board Budget Graphic shows the Survey results, the Common Data Set  of 4000 Institutions who have submitted amounts allotted in determining total cost of attendance at their College, and do not necessarily reflect actual student expenditures.

The average college student’s Student Financial Aid Package includes a sum of $1,200 in Gift Aid and/or Loan to cover their “Books and Supplies” costs.

“The average college student spends $1,200 per year on textbooks according to The College Board” [Nicole Allen is likely the writer and media source: Make Textbooks Affordable Campaign, Student PIRGs, 2013]

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Sources of misinformation:  “The average college student spends $1,200 per year on textbooks according to The College Board “

Nicole Allen – 2013 – Make Textbooks Affordable Campaign Strategy Student PIRGs Surveys – S13 Textbooks Project Packet_0.pdf

http://calpirgstudents.org/sites/student/files/resources/S13%20Textbooks%20Project%20Packet_0.pdf

S13 Textbooks Project Packet_0.pdf

http://calpirgstudents.org/sites/student/files/resources/S13%20Textbooks%20Project%20Packet_0.pdf

The College Board Arranges for News Releases of approved copy for journalist/researchers when they are citing “books and supplies data” from The College Board – include specific editing suggestions for copy written by Nicole Allen?

Page 3
“According to the College Board, the average student spends a staggering $1,200 per year on textbooks and other course materials each.”
ALT:
The average college student Financial Aid Package is based on $1,200 per year on books and supplies, according to the College Board

Page 17
“Fast Facts
• The College Board estimates that students should expect to spend $1,168 per year on textbooks
• PIRG found that the average price of common intro level textbooks is $175!
• PIRG found that prices increased 22% over the last four years
• Publishers issue new editions of textbooks every 3-4 years on average
• Open textbooks reduce costs 80% on average, renting can save up to 60%”

Page 19
“Textbook costs have emerged as a major factor in college costs, with prices rising more than four times inflation.
Many textbooks cost more than $200 each, and the College Board estimates students will spend $1,168 on textbooks and other course supplies

this year.”

Page 27
“• The average student will spend $1,200 per year on textbooks and supplies. Source: College Board”

Page 28
The average college student spends $1,200 per year on textbooks according to the College Board, and prices have been rising faster than inflation

for decades.

Page 29
• Average cost of textbooks and supplies per year: $1,168 (College Board)

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Comments on April 14 2014  [3 weeks since Posted on March 25, 2015 by Phil Hill]

We now know that the average Student does not spend $1200 for “Books and Supplies”.

We also know The College Board $1200 “Books and Supplies” Budget Graphic is showing the average Student can receive up to $1200 Gift Aid / Loan in their Financial Aid Package to cover costs of “Books and Supplies”.

I’m circling back to the objective to better understand the impact of misinformation in media published references to The College Board figures for “Books and Supplies”.


Canadian Students spend $300-$400 / semester

Canada Source: Alex Usher from Higher Education Strategy Associates post – _ http://higheredstrategy.com/data-on-textbook-costs/ _ the median amount spent is just below $300, and the mean is near $330. In addition to spending on textbooks, another 40% or so bought a coursepack (median expenditure $50), and another 25% reported buying other supplies of some description (median expenditure: also $50). Throw that altogether and you’re looking at average spending of around $385 for a single semester

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Posted on March 25, 2015 by

  • Don Gorges Don Gorges __I can pass-along this bit of information re: The College Board survey responses “Note that the data for books and supplies [-] are estimates, often based on estimates of student budgets by financial aid offices.” NCES National Center for Education Statistics _ http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2006/2006153.pdf _ Changes in Patterns of Prices and Financial Aid – 2006153.pdf _ so, I understand it is Students’ financial aid application forms that are the source of The College Board data. In the past, I have sent Cable Green and Nicole Allen this information asking them to update their presentation slides claiming Student “Spend” $1200 on Textbooks. less 18d ago

  • Don Gorges Don Gorges __Phil Hill comments – “This post actually started out as fisking of SPIRGs report that gets considerable media attention, but after reviewing the post, I thought it better to lay out this one framing the question and identifying credible sources. Then I plan to do a few more, including going back to SPIRGs.” less 18d ago
  • Don Gorges Don Gorges __see Student PIRGs Report: Open Textbooks: The Billion Dollar Solution _ http://studentpirgs.org/sites/student/files/reports/The%20Billion%20Dollar%20Solution.pdf __ We also have reason to question the credibility of survey information from SPIRGs / SPARC / Nicole Allen – see “Make Textbooks Affordable” Campaign Strategy by Nicole Allen – 2013 _ http://calpirgstudents.org/sites/student/files/resources/S13%20Textbooks%20Project%20Packet_0.pdf _ the “push poll” techniques with leading questions are a concern. less 18d ago
  • Don GorgesDon Gorges __must see 67 Comments including: __Nicole Allen comments: “As such, I am NOT saying that College Board is a better answer than NACS/SM to the precise question you asked in this post: “How much do students actually pay?” I AM saying it is the best statistic to answer the question that people are *really* asking when they ask that question: “What statistic best represents the per student financial impact of textbooks?” The answer to that question can literally shape policy decisions, which is why advocates like me are attracted to posts like this and give political answers to apolitical questions. 🙂 Less than a minute ago
  • Don GorgesDon Gorges __ The College Board figures for “Books and Supplies” does represent the financial impact of textbooks since the figure [$1200] is a direct factor in the calculated amount of “Gift aid” within a Student’s Financial Aid Package. So, it appears that it is in a Student’s best interest that The College Board “Books and Supplies” figures for their college be higher, rather than lower, where the financial aid calculations will result in the Student receiving more Gift aid – Grant money that does not have to be repaid. _ https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/pay-for-college/financial-aid-awards/compare-aid-calculator ] Less than a minute ago
  • Don Gorges
  • Don Gorges __In Nicole Allen’s slide presentations, the $1200 slide with Student Budget figures is used to create strong reaction and is often followed with the slide “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. The $1200 College Board “Books and Supplies” figure is key to OER Advocates’ high-impact strategy, yet, ironically, a Student could benefit that much more when it is pegged at $1500 or $1800+ Less than a minute ago
  • Don GorgesDon Gorges __I’m circling back to the objective to better understand the impact of misinformation in media published references to The College Board figures for “Books and Supplies”. We now know that the average Student does not spend $1200 for “Books and Supplies”. We also know The College Board $1200 “Books and Supplies” Budget Graphic is showing the average Student can receive up to $1200 Gift Aid / Loan in their Financial Aid Package to cover costs of “Books and Supplies”. Less than a minute ago

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Nicole Allen Slideshare txbks - $1200 Books and Supplies

Published on Apr 10, 2015

Overview of Open Educational Resources at UMass Dartmouth Teaching and Learning with Technology Conference 2015.

open-educational-resources-overview-umass-dartmouth-041014-9-638

open-educational-resources-overview-umass-dartmouth-041014-10-638

California State University - Northridge

Tidewater Community College

open-educational-resources-overview-umass-dartmouth-041014-16-638

NACS and Average Price Per Textbook

The two primary public sources for how much students spend on textbooks are the National Association of College Stores (NACS) and The Student Monitor.

What the data tells us is that the answer is that students spend on average $600 per year on textbooks, not $1,200.

According to the National Association of College Stores, the average price of a new textbook increased from $62 (in 2011 dollars) in 2006-07 to $68 in 2011-12.

NACS-Course-Material-Expenditures 01



Clint Lalonde Slideshow textbook spending.txt
$1200

In 3 Graphs How College Students Battled Textbook Publishers To A Draw Planet Money NPR 01 http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2014/10/09/354647112/how-college-students-battled-textbook-publishers-to-a

-draw-in-3-graphs
Don Gorges

__Hi Clint, a quick note re: Slide 15 ‘Students spend $1200/yr on textbooks’. Average U.S. student spending on new textbooks can be estimated by dividing Higher Education publishing sales [approx. $6B] by the number of students [approx.19.5 million]. When citing The College Board Survey figure, $1,200, please add NOTE: ‘Note that the data for books and supplies [-] are estimates, often based on estimates of student budgets by financial aid offices.’ [NCES National Center for Education Statistics – http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2006/2006153.pdf ]. The College Board Survey reports the average amount calculated by Students in their budgets for books and supplies expenses, as submitted on their Financial Aid applications. [That this figure has become so widely quoted is a testimony to Nicole Allen’s efforts, she is clearly an effective lobbyist for OER enterprises]

__If it’s not $1,200, how much do students spend on course materials each year? Source: NACS, National Association of College Stores _ http://www.nacs.org/toolsresources/cmip/faq/textbooks.aspx _ “While this information varies based on factors such as course load and subject matter, students estimated spending an average of $370 on required course materials during the fall 2013 term, according to NACS’ Student Watch™ fall 2013 report. Required course materials can be any type of book or media required or recommended by faculty for classes. These could be new or used textbooks, regular or general books, as well as coursepacks, readers, customized materials or digital/electronic educational materials. This amount does not include the savings achieved by students selling their used textbooks, which further reduces net costs for most students.

Further, 40.6% of students said they usually pay for course materials with grants, scholarships and student loans during the fall 2013 term. Financial assistance covered, on average, 57% of the costs of the course materials for those students.
Educational supplies are an additional cost that may include blue books, pens, paper, binders, highlighters and other necessary expenses. On average, educational supplies cost $193 for the fall 2013 term.”

—————————————————————————-

NACS, National Association of College Stores
NACS: Research: Higher Ed Retail Market Facts & Figures

http://www.nacs.org/toolsresources/cmip/faq/textbooks.aspx

http://www.nacs.org/research/industrystatistics/higheredfactsfigures.aspx

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Cable Green Updated Keynote Slides November 2014
$1200

__Hi Cable.  Slide 46 includes the most often published OER factoid, [College Board data], and it has been commonly misquoted “Students spend $1200/yr on textbooks” by many Journalists, BCcampus and appears in a U.S. Senator’s Bill. If it were true that the 19.5 million PSE Students in the U.S. actually spent $1,200, that textbook market sign might read $23.4 Billion rather than $4.3 billion. You are likely aware The College Board has updated data _ https://secure-media.collegeboard.org/digitalServices/misc/trends/2014-trends-college-pricing-report-final.pdf _ The College Board reports data from Student Loan Applications which “do not necessarily reflect actual student expenditures”

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How Much Do College Students Actually Pay For Textbooks?

With all of the talk about the unreasonably high price of college textbooks, the unfulfilled potential of open educational resources (OER), and student difficulty in paying for course materials, it is surprising how little is understood about student textbook expenses. The following two quotes illustrate the most common problem.

Atlantic: “According to a recent College Board report, university students typically spend as much as $1,200 a year total on textbooks.”

US News: “In a survey of more than 2,000 college students in 33 states and 156 different campuses, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found the average student spends as much as $1,200 each year on textbooks and supplies alone.”

While I am entirely sympathetic to the need and desire to lower textbook and course material prices for students, no one is served well by misleading information, and this information is misleading. Let’s look at the actual sources of data and what that data tells us, focusing on the aggregate measures of changes in average textbook pricing in the US and average student expenditures on textbooks. What the data tells us is that the answer is that students spend on average $600 per year on textbooks, not $1,200.

First, however, let’s address the all-too-common College Board reference.

College Board Reference

The College Board positions itself as the source for the cost of college, and their reports look at tuition (published and net), room & board, books & supplies, and other expenses. This chart is the source of most confusion.

College Board Chart

The light blue “Books and Supplies” data, ranging from $1,225 to $1,328, leads to the often-quoted $1,200 number. But look at the note right below the chart:

Other expense categories are the average amounts allotted in determining total cost of attendance and do not necessarily reflect actual student expenditures.

That’s right – the College Board just adds budget estimates for the books & supplies category, and this is not at all part of their actual survey data. The College Board does, however, point people to one source that they use as a rough basis for their budgets.

According to the National Association of College Stores, the average price of a new textbook increased from $62 (in 2011 dollars) in 2006-07 to $68 in 2011-12. Students also rely on textbook rentals, used books, and digital resources. (http://www.nacs.org/research/industrystatistics/higheredfactsfigures.aspx)

The College Board is working to help people estimate the total cost of attendance; they are not providing actual source data on textbook costs, nor do they even claim to do so. Reporters and advocates just fail to read the footnotes. The US Public Interest Research Group is one of the primary reasons that journalists use the College Board data incorrectly, but I’ll leave that subject for another post.

The other issue is the combination of books and supplies. Let’s look at actual data and sources specifically for college textbooks.

Average Textbook Price Changes

What about the idea that textbook prices keep increasing?

BLS and Textbook Price Index

The primary source of public data for this question is the Consumer Price Index (CPI) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The CPI sets up a pricing index based on a complex regression model. The index is set to 100 for December, 2001 when they started tracking this category. Using this data tool for series CUUR0000SSEA011 (college textbooks), we can see the pricing index from 2002 – 2014[1].

CPI Annual

This data equates to roughly 6% year-over-year increases in the price index of new textbooks, roughly doubling every 11 years. But note that this data is not inflation-adjusted, as the CPI is used to help determine the inflation rate. Since the US average inflation rate over 2002 – 2014 has averaged 2%, this means that textbook prices are rising roughly 3 times the rate of inflation.

NACS and Average Price Per Textbook

NACS, as its name implies, surveys college bookstores to determine what students spend on various items. The College Board uses them as a source. This is the most concise summary, also showing rising textbook prices on a raw, non inflation-adjusted basis, although a lower rate of increase than the CPI.

The following graph for average textbook prices is based on data obtained in the annual financial survey of college stores. The most recent data for “average price” was based on the sale of 3.4 million new books and 1.9 million used books sold in 134 U.S. college stores, obtained in the Independent College Stores Financial Survey 2013-14.

NACS Avg Textbook Price

Other Studies

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) did a study in 2013 looking at textbook pricing, but their data source was the BLS. This chart, however, is popularly cited.

GAO Chart

There are several private studies done by publishers or service companies that give similar results, but by definition these are not public.

Student Expenditure on Books and Supplies

For most discussion on textbook pricing, the more relevant question is what do students actually spend on textbooks, or at least on required course materials. Does the data above indicate that students are spending more and more every year? The answer is no, and the reason is that there are far more options today for getting textbooks than there used to be, and one choice – choosing not to acquire the course materials – is rapidly growing. According to Student Monitor, 30% of students choose to not acquire every college textbook.

Prior to the mid 2000s, the rough model for student expenditures was that roughly 65% purchased new textbooks and 35% bought used textbooks. Today, there are options for rentals, digital textbooks, and courseware, and the ratios are changing.

The two primary public sources for how much students spend on textbooks are the National Association of College Stores (NACS) and The Student Monitor.

NACS

The NACS also measures average student expenditure for required course materials, which is somewhat broader than textbooks but does not include non-required course supplies.

The latest available data on student spending is from Student Watch: Attitudes & Behaviors toward Course Materials, Fall 2014. Based on survey data, students spent an average of $313 on their required course materials, including purchases and rentals, for that fall term. Students spent an average of $358 on purchases for “necessary but not required” technology, such as laptops, USB drives, for the same period.

NACS Course Material Expenditures

Note that by the nature of analyzing college bookstores, NACS is biased towards traditional face-to-face education and students aged 18-24.

Update: I should have described the NACS methodology in more depth (or probably need a follow-on post), but their survey is distributed through the bookstore to students. Purchasing through Amazon, Chegg, rental, and decisions not to purchase are all captured in that study. It’s not flawless, but it is not just for purchases through the bookstore. From the study itself:

Campus bookstores distributed the survey to their students via email. Each campus survey fielded for a two week period in October 2013. A total of 12,195 valid responses were collected. To further strengthen the accuracy and representativeness of the responses collected, the data was weighted based on gender using student enrollment figures published in The Chronicle of Higher Education: 2013/2014 Almanac. The margin of error for this study is +/- 0.89% at the 95% confidence interval.

Student Monitor

Student Monitor is a company that provides syndicated and custom market research, and they produce extensive research on college expenses in the spring and fall of each year. This group interviews students for their data, rather than analyzing college bookstore financials, which is a different methodology than NACS. Based on the Fall 2014 data specifically on textbooks, students spent an average of $320 per term, which is quite close to the $638 per year calculated by NACS. Based on information from page 126:

Average Student Acquisition of Textbooks by Format/Source for Fall 2014

  • New print: 59% of acquirers, $150 total mean
  • Used print: 59% of acquirers, $108 total mean
  • Rented print: 29% of acquirers, $38 total mean
  • eTextbooks (unlimited use): 16% of acquirers, $15 total mean
  • eTextbooks (limited use): NA% of acquirers, $9 total mean
  • eTextbooks (file sharing): 8% of acquirers, $NA total mean
  • Total for Fall 2014: $320 mean
  • Total on Annual Basis: $640 mean

Note, however, that the Fall 2014 data ($640 annual) represents a steep increase from the previous trend as reported by NPR (but based on Student Monitor data). I have asked Student Monitor for commentary on the increase but have not heard back (yet).

NPR Student Monitor

Like NACS, Student Monitor is biased towards traditional face-to-face education and students aged 18-24.

Summary

I would summarize the data as follows:

The shortest answer is that US college students spend an average of $600 per year on textbooks despite rising retail prices.

I would not use College Board as a source on this subject, as they do not collect their own data on textbook pricing or expenditures, and they only use budget estimates.

I would like to thank Rob Reynolds from NextThought for his explanation and advice on the subject.


Google+ Comments

47 comments

Add a comment as Don Gorges

Stream

__Thanks, Phil, for pointing to some of the misleading factoids in circulation. It’s my sense you plan deeper analysis and critical thinking on the topic. I certainly hope you do, considering your typical thoroughness and the credibility your objective approach has earned. Having been frustrated by the misinformation too, I’ve done considerable research on the topic of textbook affordability and can pass-along this bit of information re: The College Board survey responses “Note that the data for books and supplies [-] are estimates, often based on estimates of student budgets by financial aid offices.” NCES National Center for Education Statistics _ http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2006/2006153.pdf _ Changes in Patterns of Prices and Financial Aid – 2006153.pdf _ so, I understand it is Students’ financial aid application forms that are the source of The College Board data.
Also have reason to question the credibility of survey information from SPIRGs / SPARC / Nicole Allen – see “Make Textbooks Affordable” Campaign Strategy by Nicole Allen – 2013 _ http://calpirgstudents.org/sites/student/files/resources/S13%20Textbooks%20Project%20Packet_0.pdf _ the “push poll” techniques with leading questions are a concern.
Thanks +Don Gorges . “Plan deeper analysis”, yes. Have time, we’ll see.This post actually started out as fisking of SPIRGs report that gets considerable media attention, but after reviewing the post, I thought it better to lay out this one framing the question and identifying credible sources. Then I plan to do a few more, including going back to SPIRGs.Thanks for College Board clarification. I figured out that the estimate was based on student budgets by schools, but I did not know the mechanism. This is useful info.

Students around the world, how much do you pay for textbooks nowadays? #student #book http://buff.ly/1BtZZDC
Reply

Thanks for the great post +Phil Hill , I think this is a great place to start a larger conversation about textbooks – what about students who don’t buy, or students who buy but don’t use (“my professor didn’t even use the book” – “I never open the book”)….What do faculty do with their books in class (or outside of class) how are we leveraging educational content, or are we just using books as problem sets?
What do we as faculty expect from a book, why are we assigning them, what do we hope students are doing with them.
They are such a staple of education, but why?I am all for OER, but not just because it is less expensive, but because it puts the power over educational content in the faculty and students hands – and that gets us to some much more interesting conversations.

View all 7 replies

I agree +Phil Hill and +Laura Gibbs – we need to have conversations about how open content can be much more interactive, stimulating, compelling – students have as much of a right to the 5 Rs with open content as the faculty.  This make students active managers in their educational content  – not just passive readers of a textbook.

Laura Gibbs

+Stacy Zemke I am already getting excited about next #OpenTeachingOU  chat. This textbook topic is so important!!!!

Phil Hill via Google+

New post on e-LiterateWith all of the talk about the unreasonably high price of college textbooks, the unfulfilled potential of open educational resources (OER), and student difficulty in paying for course materials, it is surprising how little is understood about student textbook expenses. [snip]While I am entirely sympathetic to the need and desire to lower textbook and course material prices for students, no one is served well by misleading information, and this information is misleading. Let’s look at the actual sources of data and what that data tells us, focusing on the aggregate measures of changes in average textbook pricing in the US and average student expenditures on textbooks. What the data tells us is that the answer is that students spend on average $600 per year on textbooks, not $1,200.

Rob Reynolds

Phil, I am extremely happy to pass over to you whatever baton I might have carried in the past related to textbooks. A really great analysis and one that I can now pass along to anyone who wants to have a clearer and real understanding of pricing. Thanks.

Phil Hill

Thanks Rob – means a lot and thanks for help.

While textbook prices increase, per year expenditures by students aren’t quite as dire as some sources report.

With all of the talk about the unreasonably high price of college textbooks, the unfulfilled potential of open educational resources (OER), and student difficulty in paying for course materials, it is surprising how little is understood about student…

Detective Phil is on the case!!! Meanwhile, I will make (again) the plea for open syllabuses. If people published syllabuses openly, and that means ISBNs for books (both required and recommended), we would be able to learn so much about what is going on in the world of expectations… and since students often do not (cannot) buy the books, we could even try to measure that gap. Why don’t we have open syllabuses? I would love to know. I hear lots of universities crowing about big data, but I have yet to see syllabus data online and openly available to all. At my school, all the syllabuses are locked up inside D2L (assuming faculty put them there as requested), which means students can only see the syllabus AFTER the semester begins, instead of being able to look at the syllabus as they shop for classes. So, OPEN SYLLABUSES: there would be so many benefits for all concerned!!! I am pleased to say that I am getting rid of required books of any kind in my Indian Epics class next year (yeah!!!), but here is the book information I share with my students, and with anyone who cares to know:
http://onlinecourselady.pbworks.com/w/page/43967005/iebooks
Note that this is very different information than what you will find in the listings at the university bookstore; the bookstore, sadly, does not allow listing anything but the most recent ISBN. As my book list shows, however, publishers change ISBNs even when a book is, for all practical purposes, the same book. By giving students the old ISBNs as well as the new ones, I can help them in shopping for the cheapest used books. Our bookstore will only list one ISBN per book.
#OpenTeachingOU

Phil Hill

I completely agree on Open Syllabus. FWIW, the GAO report cited above is actually targeted at transparency and availability of prices, although they only mention the relation to syllabus once.
+Phil Hill My school does a random (?) sampling of courses based on OU Bookstore over semesters to gauge textbook costs. They have made some pretty extravagant claims for reduced costs on that basis, although I think those claims may have to do with the Bookstore rolling out some great new options like “rent-used” in the past couple of years which have dramatically reduced costs for students who do not buy new books, but those reductions cannot be expected to continue, since rent-used is about as low as things are going to go in the Bookstore.

Thanks for digging into the question of how much students actually spend on textbooks.As you point out, in the past we’ve concerned ourselves with the question:“How much do textbooks cost?”and we’ve assumed that students actually buy the textbooks required for the course.But, when you switch from “How much do textbooks cost?” to “How much do students spend on textbooks?” you change the denominator.The shift in focus also raises the question of whether someone actually gets something of value when the buy a textbook.Take for example these two questions:
1) How much does the average student spend on college?
2) How much does the average citizen spend on college?The second question does not assume that all citizens pay for college, nor does it assume that they go to college.So, when we conflate (1) and (2) we’re dealing with different denominators, and perhaps apples and oranges.For additional comments (including my favorite – Establishing an Open University in the United States patterned after the British Open University – as a way to bring down textbook prices and more) see my blog post at:
http://innovationmemes.blogspot.com/2015/03/comments-on-eliterate-article-how-much.htmlCheers,
Fred
I am a simple parent. The reduction of cost in education is inevitable. NZC. But what do I know? I am but a numbskull among geniuses. How dare I interject. MOOCs have no future, Neither does sarcasm.

Kyle Johnson via Google+

Phil Hill originally shared this

New post on e-LiterateWith all of the talk about the unreasonably high price of college textbooks, the unfulfilled potential of open educational resources (OER), and student difficulty in paying for course materials, it is surprising how little is understood about student textbook expenses. [snip]While I am entirely sympathetic to the need and desire to lower textbook and course material prices for students, no one is served well by misleading information, and this information is misleading. Let’s look at the actual sources of data and what that data tells us, focusing on the aggregate measures of changes in average textbook pricing in the US and average student expenditures on textbooks. What the data tells us is that the answer is that students spend on average $600 per year on textbooks, not $1,200.

Thanks for useful clarification.  I’ve taught Computer Science for 32 years in a typical two year community college.  I can tell you for a fact our textbooks cost, on average about $100 each new.  Problem is compounded when students are required to buy 2 or even 3 books for one course and then add technology add-ons, like electronic tutorials, and the price can reach $200-$300 for one technology course.  While the average history course might cost $70, many courses can cost more.  My guess (and that’s all it is) is the true cost is somewhere between your $600 and the $1200, or about $800.

Phil Hill

I might include in future posts, but A) the differences in costs between disciplines is real, both in terms of # of required units and $$, B) I think the NACS category of “required course materials” makes more sense going forward to capture “electronic tutorials”, etc.

In most forums I’m rejected. And here suspect no difference. I am an entrepreneur and financier and well schooled in the Austrian tradition. First and foremost I’m a parent. Love is my motivation.  I am faced once again with the costs of books. I am new here but I support Fred Beshears concepts of a near zero cost .

Phil,Thanks for the post and the analysis, but I’d argue that your sources lead you to understate the cost issue significantly.The NACS data are not reliable because the campus store has become the choice of last resort for many students. The books they buy there are largely the ones they couldn’t buy elsewhere and still felt they had to purchase. Or they are the ones that were low enough in costs (like a Penguin paperback) that going online didn’t seem worth the trouble.The “$79” book average, in other words, only represents what students actually purchased, and purchased from the campus store. It doesn’t reflect what they should have purchased if they opted to buy everything they needed, or what they purchased from all sources. More than 60% of students (according to a large Florida survey) say they regularly forgo the purchase of required materials because of costs, and a very large portion of students nationally now purchase at least some of their required materials online.To come up with a more accurate number, NACS would need to provide the breakdown of faculty adoptions and actual purchases.This would actually give us meaningful data on costs in an absolute sense, against what actually happens locally. One would also need to know the textbook sales of websites like Amazon. Consider all of these factors, and NACS’ numbers look not only unreliable, but are likely a large underestimation of costs. Textbook costs are indeed a heavy burden for many students and their institutions.
Good point – I plan a follow-up post with more info on data sources (College Board, NACS, Student Monitor) and their methodology – hopefully later today.
+Brian Jacobs Answer from NACS:
All students or a sample of the campus population. Not from a bookstore mailing list.

Phil-
I was curious as to the $600/year amount you cite.  I went through five transferable courses offered through our campus (Poli Sci, Freshman Comp, Music Appreciation, Intro to Biol, and College Algebra) and looked to see the prices in our bookstore (I did only look for “new” book prices) and the cost was $512.  Only one book, for College Algebra, even offered a used price and it was only $52 less than the new price.  (Nice to see that there were no required materials for Freshman Comp.) That $512 price would be for one semester.  Maybe my selection of courses was unfair but I chose the classes that I took my second semester (way, way, way back when I attended this same school at which I now teach).  What we find, I believe, is that students just don’t buy the books.

Phil Hill

+Cynthia Alexander The answer is in your own last sentence and the difference between ‘what books costs’ and ‘what students pay’. Students are increasingly not buying all books or sharing material. They are renting, buying used, etc.In your example, $512 for one term would go under my heading ‘Textbook Prices’ and some lower number X would go under my heading ‘Student Expenditures’. X, when averaged across all students based on best data available, comes out to roughly $300.

I am the lead author of a general chemistry textbook (now in its 9th edition) and so watch the news about the publishing industry closely. In general, there is a great deal of misinformation or a misunderstanding of the economics of the industry in the popular press. For that reason I am delighted to see the analysis in this post. Our book has been on the market for more than 25 years in various editions. My own experience is that, while book prices have advanced a bit more than inflation, so has their general quality, both in terms of editorial and production values. At the same time costs have surely risen. I know that the art work in our last edition cost over $100K, and then there are the costs of photographs, of several development editors, a production editor, an art director, a media manager (and all of the people involved with the digital version), a manager of marketing, and so on. (A major cost, especially in the sciences and math, is also the tutorial software that is costly to develop and maintain. But it does have a positive impact on student learning.) In all it takes about 18 months of more or less full time work to prepare the manuscript of a revision (the first edition took about 8 years to write) , and then the book is in production for about 9 months. For this the publisher makes a reasonable profit (less than a bookstore markup). The authors also make less than the book store markup. Of course, we do not write the book purely out of a profit motive. It is truly a professional challenge to write a book used and hopefully appreciated by hundreds of students worldwide.
My own sense is also that the industry is at a turning point. Sales have definitely dropped, and price is surely an issue. Colleagues in the humanities tell me students do not buy books (which makes teaching even more challenging). Tutorial software still has not yet fulfilled its promise, and book design has lagged. The future of open source books is not clear. (Who will write a major book on a fee basis once they learn the amount of work truly involved?) It is a challenging time for publishers and authors alike, but it will also lead to innovation.

John Kotz

Our book sold for under $100 when it was published in 1987 and is now over $300. But that is very misleading. As you know textbooks are now sold in many ways: the entire book, by chapter, as special editions of a collection of chapters (with some perhaps from another book), as a loose-leaf notebook, or as a bundle with tutorial software (for a much lower price). In addition, and a fact little known to college faculty, books are often sold at a negotiated price. It may be, though, the chemistry market is a bit special b/c they are year-long courses with, in large state universities, very large classes. It used to be that when a department adopted a text, we knew how many books will be sold. That is no longer true.
+John Kotz Thanks

Thanks for this information. It is important to understand where the data comes from and how it is messaged.  There are two things that concern me.That 30% of the students are not purchasing the course materials and that this may be increasing.  If the course materials are essential to mastery in the course, then these students are at a disadvantage and retention will be an issue, more so for those in the lower socioeconomic population.   If these students are succeeding without the resource, then it suggest the value of the course materials are low and we should evaluate whether they are necessary.The average number does not give the best picture.  The textbook adopted for my chemistry course is $292 new ($103 digital rental), up from $252 three years ago.  This actually a little less than 6% a year, which supports your research.  It also points to a concern.  With one textbook, a student would have spent half of the average of $600 a year.  My students will often be in biology, calculus, and physics courses as well with textbooks in the same price range.Besides the average cost, should be we also do an analysis of the disciplines with the most expensive textbook costs or the lowest % of student obtaining the materials.  Thanks again for this analysis.

James Simpson

An average of discipline would be extremely interesting.  We too have students who would be in CHM, CALC, PHY and BIO…..skewing the average when you consider the number of English majors or classes offered.  I think all of us would agree that “some degrees cost more than others” when you look at the cost by discipline!

Phil Hill

+James Simpson Good points – NACS and SM both have data broken down roughly by discipline. I need to be careful about how much I share (fair usage), but with NACS new data set today or tomorrow, I should have chance to share more on this topic.

Great post. I know this stuff takes an amazing amount of work, but it’s worth it to us.Two very small quibbles (very small!). The first is that the Y-axis on the yearly course materials chart is truncated, and in a case where we are looking at a trend like this, it’s important not to truncate so that we can see decline as a percentage of cost.The second quibble (and again, very small) is whether students are buying all their required texts. My experience suggests they are not, and that means what students spend may not be the best indicator for what is required to succeed.Maybe the NACS study gets at that, but I’d worry thata) They have a vested interest in a low number
b) They might not standardize to a full-time figure(Which brings in another smaller question that’s still pertinent — are these figures partially lower because surveyed students are not taking full loads? If they aren’t, they are still paying higher textbook costs, just spread out over time).These are very minor quibbles though, I can’t thank you enough for sorting through this stuff.

Michael Caulfield

And just adding — I think even if we account for those things the mean cost is probably closer to your figures than $1200.

Phil Hill

+Michael Caulfield Good points. I agree on NACS chart presentation. I didn’t have time, but I may convert the data into my own charts to address issues like this one.I believe that both NACS and Student Monitor based their data on FTE, averaging to 4.7 required textbook units per term. I’ll verify that.No, students are not buying all of their required texts – probably a second or third post on that. From Student Monitor:
– # of courses: 4.6
– # of required texts: 4.7
– # of of texts acquired: 4.3Another data point is that only 70% of students acquired all required texts.

About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.

20 Responses to How Much Do College Students Actually Pay For Textbooks?

  1. Great post, Phil. This is extremely useful information and,hopefully, with help people understand some of the realities and complexities of the textbook market as it affects students.

  2. Pingback: Postscript on Student Textbook Expenditures: More details on data sources -e-Literate
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  4. In defense of the College Board figure…

    First, agreed 100% that it is not a perfect measure and often gets misquoted.

    HOWEVER, this article asks entirely the wrong question: it’s not about how much students spend, it’s how much textbooks cost that matters. Statistics that look at spending have become pretty much meaningless, because they are skewed by the growing number of students who do not buy their textbooks, and also by temporary and unsustainable gains in affordability through recent upticks in used books, renting and international editions. If we adopted student spending as the measure of progress, we’d be celebrating victory if all students stopped buying textbooks and brought spending to zero (and I don’t think that is *anyone’s* definition of success).

    Furthermore, let’s keep in mind that virtually all of the statistics on spending are either from interested sources (publishers, bookstores, or researchers funded by the above), or use methodologies based on imprecise self reporting — or both. So, at best any of the estimates out there are imperfect, and in my view no more reliable than the College Board.

    So, I stand by my and my fellow advocates’ use of the $1,200 figure. No it is not perfect, but it is more reflective of what students and families can actually expect of sticker prices when they show up on campus (assuming skipping textbooks isn’t part of their college savings plan). I think the big takeaway from this article is that we need to remember to communicate that figure accurately, and ensure those in our audiences, whether school administrators or reporters, understand what it represents.

  5. Phil Hill says:

    Nicole – I’m actually in the process of writing a post that addresses your second paragraph (students not buying, etc). I would argue, however, that knowing that situation as accurately as is reasonable is actually quite important and does not render that question meaningless. The fact that students aren’t buying, as I think you are implying, is important information and could actually indicate problems in market.

    I’ll reply more thoroughly after I finish today’s post, but there might be one big area of disagreement here reflecting in your phrase “measure of progress”. I’m arguing for accurate data and reporting, which if you read this post includes both pricing and expenditures. I realize your organization is based on advocacy, but this series of blogs is about transparency and understanding. So I’m not arguing that average student expenditures and whether they rise or fall is a measure of progress.

    More later, and thanks for commenting.

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  7. Phil Hill says:

    Nicole – new post here “About the Diverging Textbook Prices and Student Expenditures” that addresses the issue that flat or reduced expenditures should not be interpreted as a good thing, with some data on what students are doing instead.
    http://mfeldstein.com/about-the-diverging-textbook-prices-and-student-expenditures/

    But I would like to challenge you on one point specifically. I have laid out in detail that NACS is based on student survey each semester of 11k+ students and that Student Monitor is based on surveys of 100+ schools. College Board is based on financial aid budgets determined by institutions and not based on students saying what they actually spend. Granted that NACS and SM are not perfect, but I’m having trouble with the statement “in my view no more reliable than the College Board”?

    You’re standing by the $1,200 figure, but can you describe why – other than allusions that NACS and SM have flaws? If I am misreading the data, or if you have information on how the data is collected that I do not, I would love to either update posts or at least make sure your input is shared at e-Literate.

    Thanks in advance,

  8. Hi Phil, thanks for your replies and for your acknowledgement that you’re not “taking sides.” We’re in agreement on wanting statistics to be transparent and reported accurately, and in that context I appreciate your efforts to lay out all of the facts (haven’t read your new post, but look forward to it).

    My comment above was directed toward the real world impact of the post, since this is a very political issue even if that was not your intent. The core of the policy debate is about the “measure of progress,” i.e. whether the problem is getting better or worse, and different interest groups use different numbers to tell different stories. Publishers and bookstores tend to focus on spending (since it is “going down”) and students and OER advocates tend to focus on cost (since, as I argue above, it is more reflective of what students experience).

    As such, I am NOT saying that College Board is a better answer than NACS/SM to the precise question you asked in this post: “How much do students actually pay?” I AM saying it is the best statistic to answer the question that people are *really* asking when they ask that question: “What statistic best represents the per student financial impact of textbooks?” The answer to that question can literally shape policy decisions, which is why advocates like me are attracted to posts like this and give political answers to apolitical questions. :)

    I fully admit that our options for statistics in this space aren’t ideal; we need more accurate, independent research to address all of these questions. But until then, us advocates will do the best we can with what we have, and as I said before, we need to renew our efforts to ensure the College Board statistic is represented accurately.

  9. How about looking a some real data on actual prices paid by students who purchased textbooks on Amazon.com over four years and reach your own conclusions? And perhaps analyze the structure, conduct, and performance of the publishing industry. Why are their profit margins so high? Is the publishing industry an oligopoly? And perhaps analyze the restrictive, anti-competitive agreements between bookstores and college administrations. And investigate why instructors are prohibited from telling students about alternative sources of class textbooks. And why college bookstores bundle course materials and hide the ISBN. And why are publishers fighting the first sale doctrine of e-books? And why do the publishers fight imports of identical books? Are these practices done with the student in mind? So, to say that students do not spend as much on textbooks as other claim is not the real issue. The real issue is that the textbook business model is designed to inhibit competition and squeeze as much as possible from each and every student while they are a hostaged consumer. For historic prices and publishing industry study, and the Amazon.com textbook sales study, see: http://textbookequity.org/textbookpricestudy/

  10. Bill, it takes time to tell a story as complex as this one. See Phil’s latest post: http://mfeldstein.com/about-the-diverging-textbook-prices-and-student-expenditures/. But I get the sense from your comment that you think the actual cost students are paying somehow beside the point, and I’m not sure why that would be true (if I’m understanding you correctly). I understand Nicole’s argument that expenditure is not the best measure of student impact—it’s rare that any one number gives a good picture of any reasonably complex problem, and this one is particularly complex—but you seem to be going further.

    We’ve spilled a lot of electrons here at e-Literate about various aspects of textbooks, including textbook company business models. What Phil is doing here is taking a claim that gets repeated a lot in the media and in policy arguments and breaking it apart so that people can better understand where it came from, what the substance is behind it, what it does and doesn’t explain, and what its strengths and weaknesses might be. That’s the bread and butter of what we do, and while we agree that it is not a substitute for analysis of the big picture, we believe it is a prerequisite for that analysis.

    If I’m missing your point, please help me out here.

  11. Phil Hill says:

    Bill, FWIW I agree with Michael’s comment.

    I will say thanks for link to your Amazon textbook pricing study – very useful info. I in no way think that argues against also looking at what students actually pay (both are highly relevant).

  12. Don Gorges says:

    __$1200 plays a key strategic role for OER advocates and it’s in everyone’s best interest to get the facts straight wherever it shows up, in HiEd News Journals, Blog articles, OER Presentation Slides, SPIRGs, SPARC, CC, BCcampus, Reports, Surveys, even in a Senate Bill and Court Testimony _ These details, sources / methodology on the Books and Supplies figures may be available by contacting Myra Smith, Executive Director, Financial Aid Services at The College Board – msmith@collegeboard.org _ or an alternative College Board contact _ https://www.collegeboard.org/about/leadership

  13. Looking at what consumers pay in a gamed business model is not relevant by itself. It is a symptom of the system, not the result of market forces. As Nicole and others mentioned, many students forego the textbook due to its high cost. It is relevant to look at the number of students per subject and the number of textbooks purchased. What should those textbooks cost? How much would students spend if they had alternative textbook choices? (Would their grades improve as well?) Don’t think the system is gamed? Ask why reliable and current textbook sales and quantity data is so elusive. Ask the education publishers how many of each textbook is sold at each university/rental company/ebook retailer, and ask them to detail their gross margins by textbook. Seems very few are willing to take on these sacred cows.

  14. We’ve written about structural problems in the textbook market before. See, for example, http://mfeldstein.com/greg-mankiw-thinks-greg-mankiws-textbook-fairly-priced/. But again, we think that understanding the price paid by students is relevant. If it were not, it would not be quoted so regularly by policy makers and OER advocates alike. We didn’t make the number up; nor have we been the ones promoting it. But since it is out in the public sphere and being used for policy arguments, we’re going to help people understand it better.

  15. Pingback: Estimating the Cost of College Text Books – Parents Planning 4 College – How to prepare for college
  16. Phil Hill says:

    Bill, “Looking at what consumers pay in a gamed business model is not relevant by itself.”

    Please re-read this post as well as the two follow-up posts. You should see that there is no argument to look at student expenditures alone; there *is* an argument that both metrics (pricing & expenditures) are relevant and need to be A) better understood and B) more accurately reported.

    “Don’t think the system is gamed?” See the third post in this series as well as the one referenced by Michael (and there are others). There seems to be a big assumption that objectively describing flat or falling expenditures equates to thinking the textbook market is fair and is working. If I’m reading this correctly, that assumption is far from accurate, at least in our case at e-Literate.

  17. Don Gorges says:

    __Thanks to Bill for the Textbook Equity textbook study link – while there I saw a graphic on the “Distribution of [30,000] labor hours to create a traditional textbook” which then lead to this research offered by the Text and Academic Authors Association in “TAA debunks the top 7 myths regarding textbook costs” _ http://blog.taaonline.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/TAAmythsflyer.pdf _ Some may find the publisher’s docket detail breakdown found in “What goes into making a textbook? of interest. _ If $50/hr x 30000 hr = a $1.5M investment in “intellectual inputs”

  18. Don Gorges says:

    __Hi Phil, as we know, The Annual Survey of Colleges is a Web-based survey of nearly 4,000 accredited undergraduate colleges and universities in the U.S. The survey collects information of use to high school students, parents, and school counselors about the characteristics of each college including programs, costs, application requirements, and deadlines. _ https://professionals.collegeboard.com/higher-ed/recruitment/annual-survey _ The Common Data Set: Many of the survey questions used in the Annual Survey of Colleges are taken from the Common Data Set, a suite of standardized questions used by major publishers of college guidebooks. _ http://www.commondataset.org/ _ The 2014-2015 Common Data Set is available in Word (RTF), Excel (XLS), Adobe Acrobat (PDF), and HTML format is linked here _ http://www.commondataset.org/docs/2014-2015/CDS_2014-2015.htm _ A search of this doc. for Books and Supplies will show where the Colleges surveyed add their figures – the averaged expenses figures are used in College Board Student Budget Graphs.
    Students/Parents then can research their College choices on the College Board’s “bigfuture” website _ https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/college-search _
    It is interesting to review the specific Books and Supplies data / expenses / figures each of the College’s has submitted _ Choose any institution to go to their info – and then select the “Paying” sidebar tab – there we find a wide range of entries, some are incomplete/zero while some are higher than $1200, although none explain the method they used to determine the Books and Supplies figures entered.
    It’s not very helpful to conduct a Survey where each of the respondents use a non-standard methodology, although that appears to be the case with Books and Supplies.

  19. Phil Hill says:

    Don, thanks for the links and details. My understanding is that the Financial Aid office typically fills out this section of survey and that many go with same answer they give NCES on federal survey. Each respondent uses a non-standard methodology, as you say, and it is usually governed by the needs of financial aid (some sectors or schools look to maximize budget to allow maximum financial aid availability, some go lower to look better competitively, etc).

    By the way, the reason your post took a while to get on the site was that WordPress flagged it as possible spam due to multiple links. It’s approved, but just FYI.

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Postscript on Student Textbook Expenditures: More details on data sources

There has been a fair amount of discussion around my post two days ago about what US postsecondary students actually pay for textbooks.

The shortest answer is that US college students spend an average of $600 per year on textbooks despite rising retail prices.

I would not use College Board as a source on this subject, as they do not collect their own data on textbook pricing or expenditures, and they only use budget estimates.

I argued that the two best sources for rising average textbook price are the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Association of College Stores (NACS), and when you look at what students actually pay (including rental, non-consumption, etc) the best sources are NACS and Student Monitor. In this post I’ll share more information on the data sources and their methodologies. The purpose is to help people understand what these sources tell us and what they don’t tell us.

College Board and NPSAS

My going-in- argument was that the College Board is not a credible source on what students actually pay:

The College Board is working to help people estimate the total cost of attendance; they are not providing actual source data on textbook costs, nor do they even claim to do so. Reporters and advocates just fail to read the footnotes.

Both the College Board and National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS, official data for the National Center for Education Statistics, or NCES) currently use cost of attendance data created by financial aid offices of each institution, using the category “Books and Supplies”. There is no precise guidance from DOE on the definition of this category, and financial aid offices use very idiosyncratic methods for this budget estimate. Some schools like to maximize the amount of financial aid available to students, so there is motivation to keep this category artificially high.

The difference is three-fold:

  • NPSAS uses official census reporting from schools while the College Board gathers data from a subset of institution – their member institutions;
  • NPSAS reports the combined data “Average net price” and not the sub-category “Books and Supplies”; and
  • College Board data targeted at freshman full-time student.

From NCES report just released today based on 2012 data (footnote to figure 1):

The budget includes room and board, books and supplies, transportation, and personal expenses. This value is used as students’ budgets for the purposes of awarding federal financial aid. In calculating the net price, all grant aid is subtracted from the total price of attendance.

And the databook definition used, page 130:

The estimated cost of books and supplies for classes at NPSAS institution during the 2011–12 academic year. This variable is not comparable to the student-reported cost of books and supplies (CSTBKS) in NPSAS:08.

What’s that? It turns out that in 2008 NCES actually used a student survey – asking them what they spent rather than asking financial aid offices for net price budget calculation. NCES fully acknowledges that the current financial aid method “is not comparable” to student survey data.

As an example of how this data is calculated, see this guidance letter from the state of California [emphasis added].

The California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) has adopted student expense budgets, Attachment A, for use by the Commission for 2015-16 Cal Grant programs. The budget allowances are based on statewide averages from the 2006-07 Student Expenses and Resources Survey (SEARS) data and adjusted to 2015-16 with the forecasted changes in the California Consumer Price Index (CPI) produced by the Department of Finance.

The College Board asks essentially the same question from the same sources. I’ll repeat again – The College Board is not claiming to be an actual data source for what students actually spend on textbooks.

NACS

NACS has two sources of data – both bookstore financial reporting from member institutions and from a Student Watch survey report put out in the Fall and Spring of each academic year. NACS started collecting student expenditure data in 2007, initially every two years, then every year, then twice a year.

NACS sends their survey through approximately 20 – 25 member institutions to distribute to the full student population for that institution or a representative sample. For the Fall 2013 report:

Student WatchTM is conducted online twice a year, in the fall and spring terms. It is designed to proportionately match the most recent figures of U.S. higher education published in The Chronicle of Higher Education: 2013/2014 Almanac. Twenty campuses were selected to participate based on the following factors: public vs. private schools, two-year vs. four-year degree programs, and small, medium, and large enrollment levels.

Participating campuses included:

  • Fourteen four-year institutions and six two-year schools; and
  • Eighteen U.S. states were represented.

Campus bookstores distributed the survey to their students via email. Each campus survey fielded for a two week period in October 2013. A total of 12,195 valid responses were collected. To further strengthen the accuracy and representativeness of the responses collected, the data was weighted based on gender using student enrollment figures published in The Chronicle of Higher Education: 2013/2014 Almanac. The margin of error for this study is +/- 0.89% at the 95% confidence interval.

I interviewed Rich Hershman and Liz Riddle, who shared the specific definitions they use.

Required Course Materials:Professor requires this material for the class and has made this known through the syllabus, the bookstore, learning management system, and/or verbal instructions. These are materials you purchase/rent/borrow and may include textbooks (including print and/or digital versions), access codes, course packs, or other customized materials. Does not include optional or recommended materials.

The survey goes to students who report what they actually spent. This includes the categories of sharing materials, choosing not to acquire, rental, purchase new and purchase used.

The data is aggregated across full-time and part-time students, undergraduates and graduates. So the best way to read the data I shared previously ($638 per year) is as per-capita spending. The report breaks down further by institution type (2-yr public, etc) and type (purchase new, rental, etc). The Fall 2014 data is being released next week, and I’ll share more breakdowns with this data.

In future years NACS plans to expand the survey to go through approximately 100 institutions.

Student Monitor

Student Monitor describes their survey as follows:

  • Conducted each Spring and Fall semester
  • On campus, one-on-one intercepts conducted by professional interviewers during the three week period March 24th to April 14th, 2014 [Spring 2014 data] and October 13th-27th [Fall 2014 data]
  • 1,200 Four Year full-time undergrads (Representative sample, 100 campuses stratified by Enrollment, Type, Location, Census Region/Division)
  • Margin of error +/- 2.4%

In other words, this is an intercept survey conducted with live interviews on campus, targeting full-time undergraduates. This includes the categories of sharing materials, choosing not to acquire, rental, purchase new and purchase used.

In comparison to NACS, Student Monitor tracks more schools (100 vs. 20) but fewer students (1,200 vs. 12,000).

Despite the differences in methodology, Student Monitor and NACS report spending that is fairly consistent (both on the order of $600 per year per student).

New Data in Canada

Alex Usher from Higher Education Strategy Associates shared a blog post in response to my post that is quite interesting.

This data is a little old (2012), but it’s interesting, so my colleague Jacqueline Lambert and I thought we’d share it with you. Back then, when HESA was running a student panel, we asked about 1350 university students across Canada about how much they spent on textbooks, coursepacks, and supplies for their fall semester. [snip]

Nearly 85% of students reported spending on textbooks. What Figure 1 shows is a situation where the median amount spent is just below $300, and the mean is near $330. In addition to spending on textbooks, another 40% or so bought a coursepack (median expenditure $50), and another 25% reported buying other supplies of some description (median expenditure: also $50). Throw that altogether and you’re looking at average spending of around $385 for a single semester.

Subtracting out the “other supplies” that do not fit in NACS / Student Monitor definitions, and acknowledging that fall spending is typically higher than spring due to full-year courses, this data is also in the same ballpark of $600 per year (slightly higher in this case).

Upcoming NPSAS Data

The Higher Education Act of 2008 required NCES to add student expenditures on course materials to the NPSAS database, but this has not been added yet. According to Rich Hershman from NACS, NCES is using a survey question that is quite similar to NACS and field testing this spring. The biggest difference will be that NPSAS is annual data whereas NACS and Student Monitor send out their survey in fall and spring (then combining data).

Sometime in 2016 we should have better federal data on actual student expenditures.

Update: Mistakenly published without reference to California financial aid guidance. Now fixed.

Update 3/30: I mistakenly referred to the IPEDS database for NCES when this data is part of National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS). All references to IPEDS have been corrected to NPSAS. I apologize for confusion.

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About the Diverging Textbook Prices and Student Expenditures

This is part 3 in this series. Part 1 described the most reliable data on A) how much US college textbook prices are rising and B) how much students actually pay for textbooks, showing that the College Board data is not reliable for either measure. Part 2 provided additional detail on the data source (College Board, NCES, NACS, Student Monitor) and their methodologies. Note that the textbook market is moving into a required course materials market, and in the immediate series I use both terms somewhat interchangeably based on which source I’m quoting. They are largely equivalent, but not identical.

Based on the most reliable data we have, the average college textbook prices are rising at three times the rate of inflation while average student expenditures on textbooks is remaining flat or even falling, in either case below the rate of inflation. Average student expenditures of approximately $600 per year is about half of what gets commonly reported in the national media. The combined chart comes from this GAO Report (using CPI data) and this NPR report (using Student Monitor data).

Combined Chart

Does this indicate a functioning market, and does this indicate that we don’t have a textbook pricing problem? No, and no.

Why Are Student Expenditures Not Rising Along With Prices?

The answer to this question can be partly found in the financials of your major publishing company. If students were buying new textbooks at the same rate as they used to, publishing companies would be thriving instead of cutting thousands of employees or even resorting to bankruptcy to stay afloat. Students are increasingly choosing to not buy new textbooks.

Let’s look at the NACS data (this one from Fall 2013 data, new data coming out later this week):

NACS 2013 Did Not Acquire

Notes

A few notes to highlight:

  • 30% of surveyed students chose not to acquire at least one required course material. On average, these students skipped acquiring three textbooks in just one term.
  • The top reason in this report is not based on price: 38.5% chose not to acquire required course materials because they felt the materials were not needed or wanted, and 30.2% chose not to acquire based on price.
  • By combining answers, 38.5% chose to borrow the course materials or “it was available elsewhere without purchase”.
  • From the following page (not shown), when asked what students used to substitute for non-acquired course materials:
    • 57.1% just used notes from class;
    • 46.5% borrowed material from friends or libraries; and
    • 19.1% got the chapter or material illegally.

Average expenditures don’t capture the full story, and later in the report it is noted that:

  • Students at two-year colleges spent 31% more than the average on required course materials;
  • Overall first year students spent 23% more than the average on required course materials; and
  • Overall second year students spent 10% more than the average on required course materials.

In other words, the high enrollment courses in the first two years lead to the highest student expenditures on textbooks. Note that we’re still not talking about $1,200 per year spending as often reported based on College Board data, even for these first two years.

Student Monitor also captures some information of note.

  • They report identical data – 30% choosing not to acquire at least one textbook.
  • 29% of students report they bought ‘required course materials’ that ended up not being used. Of these students, 52% will be more likely to “wait longer before purchasing course materials”.
  • They categorize the reasons for not acquiring textbooks differently; professor not using the “required” material was listed by 22% of students, lower than affordability at 31%.
  • 73% of students who downloaded textbooks illegally did so to “save money”.

Negative Impact on Students

It is important to look at both types of data – textbook list prices and student expenditures – to see some of the important market dynamics at play. All in all, students are exercising their market power to keep their expenditures down – buying used, renting, borrowing, obtaining illegally, delaying purchase, or just not using at all. And textbook publishers are suffering, despite (or largely because of) their rising prices.

But there are downsides for students. There are increasing number of students just not using their required course materials, and students often delay purchase until well into the academic term. Whether from perceived need or from rising prices, this is not a good situation for student retention and learning.

12 comments

So much to think about here +Phil Hill.  Do we need a study that can somehow quantify the true impact of textbooks – are these students who are not purchasing or just to using, underperforming – are grades/outcomes similar to those that purchase and/or use the book? What is the real impact of a textbook?
I think there are some much broader conversations around the topic of the textbook What are we as faculty doing with textbooks, what are our expectations of them -are they just homework sets, are they baseline content for the course, why do students think “we aren’t using them.”
And for students, what are the books for?  Do they read them at all, just for practice/homework, are they for cramming before tests, will they read them if there is not a grade/points directly associated?We have lots of discussions of cost, and the argument of whether open textbooks are “good enough” or “high quality”  – but are there any studies on whether or not a textbook, of any kind from any publisher, is actually impactful to learning?

Phil Hill

Great questions, but unfortunately I do not (without research time) have any independent studies on textbook efficacy. I know that the publishers have private studies as do individual schools, but I am not familiar with others.What I have also seen are quasi studies on whether OER affects learning outcomes or e-textbooks.
http://utahopentextbooks.org/2011/10/12/efficacy-data-are-in/
http://www.psyc.jmu.edu/ug/features/etextbooks.htmlBut those don’t get at (at least in direct fashion) questions such as performance of students who do and don’t acquire textbooks.Anyone else know more?

Phil Hill via Google

New post on e-Literate on the textbook pricing / expenditures data. Spoiler alert:It is important to look at both types of data – textbook list prices and student expenditures – to see some of the important market dynamics at play. All in all, students are exercising their market power to keep their expenditures down – buying used, renting, borrowing, obtaining illegally, delaying purchase, or just not using at all. And textbook publishers are suffering, despite (or largely because of) their rising prices.But there are downsides for students. There are increasing number of students just not using their required course materials, and students often delay purchase until well into the academic term. Whether from perceived need or from rising prices, this is not a good situation for student retention and learning.

Phil Hill

You two are breaking the narrative here, with faculty caring and doing something about textbook prices. Watch yourselves ;}
+Phil Hill One nice thing about being in that minority: the students are soooooo grateful. Some efforts that faculty make might be invisible to students, but this is an effort that is very visible and for which I get lots of encouraging thanks from the students. 🙂

Laura Gibbs via Google+

Agree! At this point, reducing costs is not my main goal (I’ve got book costs down to under $20 in my class that uses books because of amazing Amazon used book service); I am more interested in how open content can make for better classes… but when I read about classes with monstrously expensive textbooks, ouch, I shudder.

Phil Hill originally shared this

New post on e-Literate on the textbook pricing / expenditures data. Spoiler alert:It is important to look at both types of data – textbook list prices and student expenditures – to see some of the important market dynamics at play. All in all, students are exercising their market power to keep their expenditures down – buying used, renting, borrowing, obtaining illegally, delaying purchase, or just not using at all. And textbook publishers are suffering, despite (or largely because of) their rising prices.But there are downsides for students. There are increasing number of students just not using their required course materials, and students often delay purchase until well into the academic term. Whether from perceived need or from rising prices, this is not a good situation for student retention and learning.

James Simpson

I have at least one faculty member who is/has decided to switch from an “open content” textbook (less than $30 in the Bookstore) to a book that is more than twice ($78) the price.  Why?  Because students aren’t reading the material, aren’t retaining the information (possibly because they never read it in the first place) and aren’t performing well in her class; an entry level Sociology class.  The change will make it easier for her to “see” what students are reading, how they are processing the information and how well they retain or understand the information.  The “on-line” included materials do the measuring for her and that is why she’s changing…..very interesting and I greatly appreciate her sharing that information with me!

Laura Gibbs

Yikes, my approach would be to just ASK the students what they are reading / not reading, and why. The WHY is the most important question, and no data analytics package will ever tell you that. I get feedback like that from my students all the time, and it drives my course development in every way.
They often surprise me with their answers.
But you won’t know if you don’t ask.

Having managed a college bookstore for 24 years, I can tell you using new book prices at a Community College, the average student is spending about $150 minimum per course.  That’s more than the estimates you’ve discussed.  Perhaps your figures are already taking into account the 30% who don’t buy anything.    We have some courses where the books are over $300 for 1 course, 1 semester long.  The cheapest class would be about $100.
One other flaw I see in most analysis (including yours and your sources) is that they don’t consider book buyback which if ignored misleads the numbers as well.  I’ve personally handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars for book buyback, and though those numbers are increasingly less each term, they make a huge impact on the overall cost a student pays for books annually.

3 Responses to About the Diverging Textbook Prices and Student Expenditures

  1. Phil, great post! I fully take your point that both types of data are important. The trend you reveal here is a critical one: the destructive cycle between publisher price increases and students not buying the books. Do you think the data give any insight on how/when this cycle will end?

  2. Nicole, thanks for the feedback. If any of us knew the end-game or end-of-cycle, I’d love to read more :}

    What I do think the data shows is that we are in the death throws of an unsustainable textbook market. This is not a case of straight-line extrapolations IMO. The data does indicate:
    – Simply going digital is not the answer and students actually prefer print, at least based on current options;
    – Student choice through rental, buy/sell, borrow, go illegal is having a big impact, and it’s hard to see how we will go backwards in student choice;
    – One of the biggest moves is from textbook to required course materials – not simply digital textbooks but to courseware;
    – OER has underperformed compared to its potential to change, and the market economics are a barrier here (ppl paying $$ not ones making selection, but preaching to choir here).

    End of cycle? We can project, but it’s not clear the answer just from the data itself. Your guesses?

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20mm.org/blog/textbook-rentals-biggest-change-student-spending

By: Phil Hill

The traditional textbook market is going away, and even publishers understand this change.

“Textbooks are dead,” the former president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education, Brian Kibby, said at EDUCAUSE 2014. He said that personalization and adaptive learning techniques are where innovation is happening in the educational publishing industry.

One of the primary reasons is that textbooks are too expensive and students are having trouble paying for them. Those two observations, however, are not identical – what students pay for textbooks is not perfectly correlated with the price of textbooks, as I have argued in several e-Literate posts.

This month the National Association of College Stores (NACS) released their Fall 2014 survey results, and the biggest change in data calls out a dramatic increase in textbook rentals.

College students are increasingly taking advantage of the lower-cost option of renting their course materials, with 40.4% of students renting at least one course material during the Fall 2014 term, according to the newly released Student Watch: Attitudes and Behaviors toward Course Materials, Fall 2014. This represents a 100% increase over fall 2011 figures.

Not only are more students opting to rent their materials, the number of course materials being rented is also increasing. Rentals represented 32% of all the materials that were paid for during the fall 2014 term, compared with 19% a year ago.

Rental Trends

Not only are students choosing to rent more often, they are making changes to what they are renting (and buying), opting for used materials more and more often. In the past year students:

  • Opted for more used textbooks when purchasing, going from 66% to 72%; and
  • Opted for more used textbooks when renting, going from 68% to 75%.

New Used

There are several factors at play to help explain the divergence of what textbooks costs and what students spend, including students opting to not acquire materials due to price, the introduction of OER options, and the rise in illegal downloads of materials. It is clear from the data, however, that students are choosing textbook rentals as an alternative cost-reduction method to acquire textbooks more often than other options.

Where are students renting their materials? College bookstores, Amazon and Chegg, with the stores losing share and Amazon gaining share.

Where are students renting their materials? College bookstores, Amazon and Chegg, with the stores losing share and Amazon gaining share.

Rental sources

None of this should argue that the problem of college affordability for textbooks has been solved. Textbook rentals prevent students from taking notes and from retaining their course materials from term to term. Students are choosing this method for cost reasons, but rentals are not ideal in terms of student achievement. From this perspective, rentals are better understood as an indicator of what students are avoiding – paying full price to acquire textbooks – than as an indicator of what students need.

Furthermore, this combined insight of the rise of rentals and the increase in used materials should help explain the dire prospects for any textbook publisher taking too long to change their business model.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to overlook the importance of the rental market and what Amazon and Chegg (and even college bookstores) have done to provide options that help students manage their finances.

___________________________________

The above post–pertaining to developments in the education technology space of mutual interest to the Michelson Twenty Million Minds Foundation, Inc. and MindWires Consulting–represent the opinions and views of the designated authors, Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein, who maintain editorial independence.

  • Don Gorges

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One thought on “Fact Checking How Much Do College Students Actually Pay For Textbooks? 2015 > 2016 Phil Hill

  1. Pingback: Don Gorges Archive of LinkedIn Posts & Links October 24 to October 29 | Don Gorges

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