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High Prices Prevent College Students from Buying Assigned Textbooks

Survey Finds Soaring Costs, Publisher Tactics May Jeopardize Success in Classes
For Immediate Release

Boston, Mass. (August 11, 2011) – Skyrocketing textbook prices have driven many college students to risk their grades by foregoing assigned books according to a report released today by the Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs).  Seven out of ten undergraduates who took the survey reported they had not purchased one or more textbooks because the cost was too high.  This startling trend adds to mounting evidence that high college expenses can impact student success.

“I am paying for my entire college education, so adding the high price of textbooks is really hard for me financially,” commented one Indiana University junior who took the anonymous survey. “It's frustrating because you have to buy the books in order to do well in many classes.”

Alongside tuition and fees, textbook costs have risen sharply in recent years.  New analysis by the Student PIRGs found that textbook prices increased 22% over the last four years, quadruple inflation.  According to the College Board, students should expect to spend $1,137 annually on textbooks and other course materials.  The GAO estimates that textbook costs are comparable to 26% of tuition at state universities and 72% at community colleges.

 "Students recognize that textbooks are essential to their education but have been pushed to the breaking point by skyrocketing costs," said Nicole Allen, Textbook Advocate for the Student PIRGs.  "The alarming results of this survey underscore the urgent need for affordable solutions." 

Students Skip Textbook Purchases

The new report is based on a survey of 1,905 undergraduates from 13 campuses this spring.  The major finding was that 70% of respondents had decided against buying at least one assigned textbook due to cost.  While some of these students reported sharing or borrowing instead, 78% still believed they would generally do worse in class without their own copy of the required text.

"I wasn't sure until a few days before the term started whether I could afford going to school," commented a University of Southern California sophomore who was unable to buy several required books.  "This was very stressful, as I often fell behind in the readings."

Publisher Tactics Continue

Students also reported negative impacts from the publishing industry's long-standing bad practices that inflate costs; 93% of the students said at least one such practice had affected the price or resale value of their books.

  • 81% had been affected by new editions.  Publishers release new editions every 3-4 years regardless of changes to the subject, which effectively eliminates the used book market for the previous edition. 
  • 59% had been affected by bundling.  “Bundling,” or the practice of packaging textbooks with CDs, pass-codes and other bells and whistles can force students to pay for unwanted items, which often expire or get lost making books impossible to sell back.
  • 48% had been affected by custom editions created for their school.  Customization, often presented as a cost-saving measure can have the opposite effect by segregating students from the larger used book market and eliminating off-campus buying options.

"As if outrageous $100-200 price tags aren't enough, publisher tactics make textbooks even more difficult for students to buy," said Allen.  "It's adding insult to injury."

 For tips about saving money on textbooks, visit www.studentpirgs.org/resources/textbook-tips.

Textbook Rebellion

Continued publisher abuse has fueled frustration among not just students, but also faculty, parents and other groups that share the burden of textbook costs.  This fall, the Student PIRGs are joining forces with Campus Progress, Flat World Knowledge, Rock the Vote and numerous other organizations to launch a joint national effort called the "Textbook Rebellion."

The Textbook Rebellion represents a united front across all stakeholders and seeks to raise awareness of solutions.  Students can already save hundreds by taking advantage of rentals, used books, and in some cases, eBooks and eReaders.  Longer-term solutions have even greater potential, like open textbooks, which are licensed to allow everyone to freely use, adapt and print the material.  Open texts are already used in more than 2,000 classes and save students 80% on average.

This semester, the Student PIRGs will lead a national campus tour of the larger-than-life Textbook Rebellion mascots, "Textbook Rebel" and "Mr. $200 Textbook."  More details and a list of tour stops will be announced later this month.

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The Student PIRGs is a national network of non-profit, non-partisan student advocacy groups that work on public interest issues pertaining to the environment, consumer protection and government reform.

A copy of the report, A Barrier to Learning: How Rising Costs Stand Between Students and Their Textbooks, can be downloaded online at www.studentpirgs.org/textbooks/documents/2011-textbook-survey.pdf.

Textbook price inflation was calculated from Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index (CPI) data, which measures average price change over time as experienced by consumers.  To calculate the figure, we compared the annual CPI for “College Textbooks” in 2007 (138.6) and 2010 (168.8) to the annual CPI for “All Items” in the same years (207.3 and 218.0 respectively).  The outcome was that the price increase of College Textbooks was 22%, 4.22 times the price increase of All Items.  Data accessed August 1, 2011.

The survey was conducted by students and staff with the Student PIRGs and Arizona Students’ Association on 13 campuses during the spring 2011 semester.  A total of 1,905 surveys were collected through a combination of on-campus outreach and e-mail.  Since the methodology relies on opportunistic sample selection, this survey does not necessarily represent to the larger student population and should be treated as a snapshot of opinions from the campuses and students it reflects.  Statistics were calculated by dividing the number of students who selected a specific answer to a question divided by the total number of students who answered the question.