The Curious Case of Soaring Textbook Costs

My grandpa always used to say: “Education is free for anyone who remains curious enough in life.” That might be true. Yet with today’s soaring textbook costs, higher education is anything but free for the average college student.

There are hundreds of articles that detail how textbook prices have risen 3x and 4x the rate of inflation, how prices now exceed the total cost of tuition at some universities, and even how certain publishers intentionally inflate textbook prices via bundling, new editions, restrictive licensing, etc.

Research has also revealed the negative effects of these rising prices on today’s college student. When faced with the decision of whether to buy books or pay rent, many students forego the purchase of required course materials altogether. Other students respond by taking fewer classes, which results in slower time to graduation rates and increased student loan debt.

Fortunately, as the price of textbooks continue to increase, so has the use of open education resources (OERs): openly licensed course materials that students can access, edit, and share without cost or restriction. In addition to being free of cost, study after study has shown OERs’ quality to be equal to or better than printed textbooks. Consequently, OER use is projected to triple over the next five years alone.

Despite OERs’ potential to offset the soaring cost of college textbooks, few studies have explored their use among historically underserved student populations. Ewoko (2017) writes:

While the advantages of OER on student performance may be difficult to dispute, there is less clarity on whether student outcomes are similar across all student populations… So as colleges become more diverse, disaggregated performance data will be essential to understanding if our efforts are having their desired impact for all students. (par. 6, 8)

For each of these reasons, CSU Channel Islands’ openCI initiative recently launched a campus-wide study to explore textbook affordability among its uniquely diverse student body. The study resulted in over 700 undergraduate survey responses. And although still in progress, its initial results offer several key takeaways for educators who are curious about how to help their students succeed.

Initial Results

Initial results from all 705 responses reveal that a vast majority of students have experienced increased stress due to textbook pricing. When asked to rate their stress levels on a scale from 1-10, the average rating was a staggering 7.0. A majority of these students – regardless of race/ethnicity or socioeconomic status – reported not having a textbook on the first day of class because of its cost, not buying a required textbook at all because of its cost, as well as not buying a textbook because of its cost and then later feeling it hurt their performance in the class. A notable number of students also reported not buying a textbook because of its cost even though they knew ahead of time it would hurt their performance. Still others avoiding taking a class, dropped a class, and/or failed a class due to textbook costs.

Initial Results from All 705 Student Surveys% of Students
Students who experienced increased stress because of textbook costs:89%
Student rating of the stress they felt from textbook costs on a Likert-type scale of 1-10:7
Students who did not have a textbook on the 1st day of class because of cost:80%
Students who did not buy a textbook at all because of cost:65%
Students who did not buy a textbook and later felt it hurt their performance:56%
Students who did not buy a textbook, knowing before it would hurt their performance:44%
Students who avoided taking a class because of textbook costs:27%
Students who dropped a class because of textbook costs:12%
Students who failed a class because of textbook costs:9%

As concerning as these results are, the data is even more poignant among historically underserved student groups. A number of statistically significant correlations where found among racial/ethnic minorities, low-income students, and first-generation college students in regard to stress levels, first-day access, purchase habits, and more.

Statistically Significant Results for Racial/Ethnic Minority Students White Latinx
Students who experienced increased stress because of textbook costs:85.7%91.1%*
Student rating of the stress they felt from textbook costs on a Likert-type scale of 1-10:6.57.2***
Students who did not have a textbook on the 1st day of class because of cost:75%83.6%*
Students who avoided taking a class because of textbook costs:22.6%30.7%*
Students who failed a class because of textbook costs:
4.4%12.3%**

<.05, **p<.01, ***p<.001

 

Statistically Significant Results for Students Dependent on Financial AidFinancial Aid IndependentFinancial Aid Dependent
Students who experienced increased stress because of textbook costs:84.4%90.9%*
Student rating of the stress they felt from textbook costs on a Likert-type scale of 1-10:6.37.1***
Students who did not have a textbook on the 1st day of class because of cost:74.1%82.5%*
Students who did not buy a textbook and later felt it hurt their performance:49.8%58.6%*

<.05, **p<.01, ***p<.001

 

Statistically Significant Results for First-Generation StudentsNon-1st-Generation1st-Generation
Students who experienced increased stress because of textbook costs:85.9%91%*
Student rating of the stress they felt from textbook costs on a Likert-type scale of 1-10:6.57.1**
Students who did not have a textbook on the 1st day of class because of cost:60.5%67.9%*
Students who did not buy a textbook at all because of cost:73.4%84.3%***
Students who did not buy a textbook and later felt it hurt their performance:48.7%60.8%**
Students who did not buy a textbook, knowing before it would hurt their performance:38.5%48.2%*
Students who failed a class because of textbook costs:6.3%11.2%*

<.05, **p<.01, ***p<.001

Key Takeaways

  • Textbook prices are a significant educational barrier for all CSUCI students
  • Textbook prices are an even greater barrier for historically underserved students
  • A potential lack of academic capital exists among historically underserved students
  • Those in higher education must advocate for their most vulnerable students

There are several key takeaways from these results. First, textbook prices are a significant educational barrier for all CSU Channel Islands’ students. Those barriers are even greater, however, for historically underserved student populations: racial/ethnic minorities, low-income students, and first-generation college students.

These results suggest a potential theoretical extension to Pierre Bourdieu’s (1979) notion of academic capital. In addition to the results mentioned above, for example, our initial data revealed a positive correlation between students’ first-generation status and the number of textbooks they were required to purchase each semester. One possible explanation for this statistically significant finding is that first-generation college students have fewer educational mentors or mental models at their disposal for navigating the landscape of higher education (i.e., academic capital).

Finally, this study’s ultimate takeaway is a challenge for each of us in higher education. There has been a lack of research in this area up until now; however, we can no longer hide our textbook-laden syllabi behind a façade of ignorance. It’s clear that rising textbook costs are hurting our students, and the students being hurt most of all are those who are most vulnerable.

It is our responsibility as educators, then, to ensure equal opportunity is being offered to everyone. To ensure one’s learning limit never hinges on one’s purchasing power. And to ensure unnecessary financial barriers are removed for anyone who remains curious enough in life to pursue her or his education.

I know my grandpa would agree.

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