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.
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:
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.