College Students Struggling with Soaring Textbook Costs

With the average student shelling out $1,200 a year just on books, students, professors and policy groups are searching for ways to circumvent the high cost of traditional textbooks.

It's no simple multiple-choice question. Growing rental and e-book markets lower prices but come with a convenience cost. Budding open-source textbook programs hold promise but aren't mainstream yet. Meanwhile, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group says 70 percent of students admit they just skip buying some books, saving money but often inflicting a high price on their academic success.

"It's getting to the point where students can't afford them anymore," said Nicole Allen, director of the open educational resources program at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. "It limits access they need to complete their education, which can undercut their ability to perform in class."

The College Board found that the average student at a four-year public college spends $1,200 on "books and supplies," or nearly $1,250 if they go to a private school. On the public policy blog of the American Enterprise Institute, where he is a fellow, University of Michigan-Flint economics professor Mark J. Perry highlighted a chart showing an 812 percent increase in the cost of college textbooks since 1978, a jump even higher than the percentage growth in the cost of health care.

"Students are, in essence, a captive market," said Ethan Senack, higher education associate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "The publishing industry is dominated by five companies that dominate upwards of 85 percent of the market."

"I think part of it is the consolidation... There's less competition now," Perry said. "The other thing that irritates students and professors quite a bit is they've really sped up the publishing schedule," with new editions coming out every couple of years.

Image: College textbooks, via Shutterstock

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