Are High Textbook Prices Justified?

Are High Textbook Prices Justified?

By: Oliviah Brown

March 9th, 2022

At the beginning of every semester, colleges quickly send bills to students charging for tuition, dining, housing and other miscellaneous fees. Many students feel overwhelmed as they try to calculate how much a semester of classes will set them back. One major cost adding to the pile of financial strain is the cost of textbooks, access codes and other required materials. This is a price students everywhere have to pay in order to stay up to date with their education. 

Since the 1970s, prices of textbooks have been on the rise, caused by publishers and the bookstores that sell them. Journalist and publicist Philip Whitten explained in a 1975 article that the high costs were a cushion to alleviate the financial strain the publishers faced during and after the publishing process, such as taxes, royalties and manufacturing costs. Because of this, textbook prices from the 1970s until the mid-2010s have increased over 1000%, a devastating number for students as they attempt to afford school. 

Some professors assign costly required textbooks, some with prices as high as $400. In a survey conducted with college students from public universities around the United States, 33.3% of participants said they spent between $200 and $300 on textbooks each semester, while 12.5% spent over $300 per semester. Participants anonymously gave their opinions on the prices of textbooks—unanimously agreeing they are way too expensive. One Michigan State University student thought the costs were outrageous, saying, “What frustrates me the most is that from edition to edition, there is little [to] no variation between the content, yet the prices always increase for the newest edition.”

Another heavy cost hurting students’ wallets is required access codes or other online materials such as Cengage, McGraw Hill, Top Hat and Webwork. Access codes, often contained in a textbook, allow students to access coursework, study guides and other online resources. They are often required by professors in order to participate in classes or to complete homework assignments for a grade. Cengage, McGraw Hill, Top Hat and Webwork are popular subscription based websites that, similar to access codes, allow students to access and participate in classwork. 

Surveyed students reported they are required to spend anywhere from $40 to more than $250 for subscriptions, access codes and other materials—not including textbooks. An MSU student commenting on the requirement for paid subscriptions said, “There’s no reason why [professors] can’t have a worksheet on Google Classroom for free for their students to complete. Why should I have to pay extra to a college I am already paying $30,000 a year for?” 

As the prices of textbooks and online course materials begin to pile up, many students feel the effects on their education and financial situations. The strain caused by the high cost of required materials can negatively impact the livelihood of those living paycheck to paycheck. TeenVogue education columnist Zach Schermele said, “Forty-three percent of current and former college students said they have skipped meals to save money for textbooks and course materials, and 85% called textbooks a major source of financial stress.” 

The inability to afford books and materials negatively impacts the quality of a student’s education. If someone can’t afford books at the beginning of the semester, the quality of their learning plummets, along with their ability to earn higher grades. Some drop out of classes because of how much course materials cost and how unfeasible they are to afford. 

College students have taken initiative to find creative ways to save money during their time in higher education. One popular option is finding free PDF copies of their textbooks, whether pirated illegally or taken from a legitimate source such as The Gutenberg Project or through a local library. While it’s common for students to pirate, finding free e-books from a local library’s digital collection or from websites such as The Gutenberg Project is a better, safer alternative. 

Both renting and buying used are useful, low-cost options—even if they aren’t perfect solutions. Renting allows students to save “hundreds of dollars each term, which can really add up over the course of your time in college.” On websites such as Amazon, eCampus and Chegg, rented books are cheaper and more sustainable. Buying used also has benefits, primarily the lower cost.

In some textbooks, past students may have already highlighted important passages. Textbook retailer SlugBooks wrote, “Anyone who owns a highlighted copy of a text holds a blueprint for success, mapped out by the book’s previous owners.” But the downside to used and rented books is they don’t come with a new one-time use access code  many professors require. 

Students have a right to an education, no matter their financial status, and inaccessible textbooks shouldn’t stand in the way of that. Professors are beginning to recognize the importance of low-cost learning materials and are providing more free sources in place of textbooks, but many still require these high-priced resources. If universities want to provide accessible education, lowering the cost of textbooks should be a priority. 

Oliviah Brown is a senior double-majoring in English with a creative writing focus and professional and public writing. Her goal after graduation is to pursue a career as a copy editor. When she isn’t studying, she enjoys reading fantasy novels, writing poetry or crocheting.