As if the high cost of a college education isn’t bad enough for today’s students (not to mention their anxious parents who have to mortgage their home to the hilt to pay for an undergraduate education), the cost of college textbooks has soared a staggering 812% in the last three decades (compared to a 559% increase in college tuition over that same period). According to the the National Association of College Stores (NACS), the average college student spends $655 on textbooks each year. Since a single textbook can cost as much as $300, the total expenditure on books can be much higher. According to another source, the College Board, the average annual cost of textbooks is $1,168. And those figures don’t even include the future medical bills for the painful back injuries that will result from carrying 50 pounds of overpriced books each day.
So if a book costs $300 where does all that money go? Good question. An analysis by the U.S. News & World Report, revealed that in the case of a $300 textbook, about 20% ($60) goes to the store that sold the book and 80% ($240) goes to the publisher (15% goes toward the marketing of the book; 12% goes to the authors).
According to Outsell Inc., the total amount spent on secondary and college textbooks in the U.S. each year is more than $12.4 billion dollars. The challenge to these expensive textbooks is the rise of free or low-cost digital books or ebooks, part of the what is being called the “open educational resources” movement that is trying to make educational affordable again. The leading textbook publishers have introduced ebooks that have access codes that expire at the end of each semester. So far, ebooks account for 27% ($3.35 billion) of the entire $12.4 billion market.
Another challenge to the expensive textbook is the rental market. Students save hundreds of dollars each year by simply renting a book at a fraction of the original sticker price. Some students still do it old school and buy used textbooks, selling them back to the bookstore for a percentage of the original discounted price.
Despite the introduction of low-cost of ebooks, students still prefer the traditional printed textbook. It’s not surprising — after all, with an ebook, you can’t dog-ear a page, mark a passage with a color highlighter, doodle in the margins, or level a chair or desk that has one short leg. In a survey conducted by the NACS in 2012, 77% of students preferred a printed book over an ebook. Another factor, of course, is that ebooks are not required for classes on a large scale; in a survey conducted by Student Monitor in the spring of 2013, only 14% of college students were enrolled with courses that required ebooks or online textbooks.