By Doug Ward

My mom managed a college bookstore for many years. That was in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, when the bookstore was the only place to buy books. Students could sometimes snag a used book from a friend, but for the most part, they bought their books from the college store.

That doesn’t mean students were happy about the arrangement. My mom never got used to the disparaging remarks that students would mutter when they bought their books or tried to sell them back.

woman sitting on large stack of books
Stocksnap, Gaelle Marcel

“What a ripoff!” they would say. Some even called the bookstore “Max’s Ripoff Shop.”

She calmly explained that she had little control over prices, which were set by the publishers. She agreed that the prices students paid for books – and the meager amount they got back during buyback – was abhorrent. If they wanted to see lower prices, she said, they should talk to instructors who choose high-priced books for their classes.

My mom retired a decade ago, but the problem of overpriced textbooks has only gotten worse. I say “textbooks,” but the growing challenge today is with access to digital course materials that students must purchase in the form of access codes. Those codes are generally a series of letters and numbers that students enter on a website to unlock course material for the duration of a class.

A recent study by an advocacy organization called the Student Public Interest Research Groups found that 32 percent of courses required course materials with access codes for online material. That rate was highest at community colleges, where 37.5 percent of courses used course materials that required access codes. Accounting, psychology, nursing and business classes are the most likely to those types of materials, the study said.

Although federal law requires publishers to offer access codes separately from textbooks, Student PIRGs found that bookstores offered only 28 percent of access codes separate from textbooks. That is, students are forced to buy books they don’t need just to get the accompanying access codes. The access code model also gives students no alternatives for finding cheaper course materials.

The problem is growing more severe. As budgets shrink and class sizes grow, instructors, who are already stretched thin, must find ways to help students learn. That’s where publishers step in, offering digital course material that leads students through assignments, grades quizzes, gives feedback, saves instructors’ time and in some cases improves student learning. According to the National Association of College Stores, 60 percent of students used digital course material last year.

Many of these digital tools show promise, and instructors should experiment with them. The problem is that once an instructor starts using these materials, it is difficult to stop. The online assignments become deeply integrated into the structure of a course. Changing to a new system becomes time-consuming and disruptive, so students pay higher and higher prices.

That’s all according to plan, Student PIRGs says, calling access codes “the new, dangerous face of the textbook monopoly.”

To be fair, the National Association of College Stores says students are actually spending less on course materials than they did 10 years ago. Textbook rentals have helped cut costs, and digital versions of books are often less expensive than print books, the association says.

Even so, students spend more than $600 a year on course materials, the association says. As you can see in the accompanying chart, though, textbook prices have increased more than any other educational cost over the past 10 years. Those costs, coupled with rising tuition, have created a mindset among many students that course materials are optional. That attitude helps no one, and we simply must make changes if we value learning, as I wrote last year in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

So what can we do? I see two courses of action: Raise awareness about the cost of learning materials and, ideally, integrate those costs into tuition and fees.

Raising awareness

Some faculty members seem oblivious or even dismissive of the costs of books and online learning material. Far more of them are open to using free and low-cost resources but lack the time to assess and assemble those resources.

Thankfully, the Shulenburger Office of Scholarly Communication and Copyright at KU Libraries has stepped in to help. That office has been a national leader in promoting open educational resources, and librarians like Ada Emmett and Josh Bolick have worked hard to help faculty members find and adopt alternatives to high-priced books and other course materials.

The Shulenburger Office has taken that work a step further this year, offering grants to faculty members who adopt, adapt or create open resources for their courses. Those grants, which range from $1,000 to $5,000, are intended not only to help individual instructors but to make open educational resources more a part of university culture. It also maintains a list of open educational resources.

Bundling book costs with tuition

Increasingly, I see a need to include course materials in the price of tuition and fees. Many universities already do that, as Audrey Watters explains. Other universities have taken a collaborative approach to the problem, forming Unizin, a consortium that works across campuses to find more cost-effective ways of creating and using technology for learning.

Bundling book costs with tuition and fees isn’t a magic solution, and it is fraught with challenges. Moving from a free-for-all approach to selecting learning materials to one that would require coordination within and across departments would require an enormous change in thinking and culture. It would take time, anger many faculty members and, at least initially, very likely lead to higher student fees.

In the end, though, it could help keep costs down and help address what The Atlantic recently called “The Unnecessarily Mysterious Cost of College.” It would also cut down on excuses for students to avoid buying books and electronic course materials. The idea isn’t to take away choice from instructors but, rather, to approach the purchase of learning materials in a more holistic way and to generate discussions about the most effective ways to help students learn. This approach would also make the costs of course materials more transparent to students, parents, faculty members and administrators.

There are no perfect ways to address the rising costs of textbooks, access codes and learning materials. Universities must do something, though, lest the rising cost of college take on the perception of a ripoff.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

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