Hitting the books can be a serious hit in the wallet these days.
Already grappling with skyrocketing tuition and fees, college students also must contend with triple-digit inflation on the price of textbooks. 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.
Val Maharaj, a senior at New York University pursuing a double major in biology and philosophy, said he saved about $140 buying an old edition of a textbook this semester. The bulk of the material was the same, he said, but even small changes were frustrating. "The page numbers are much different between editions. I could follow it by section but I think it's a little more convenient to know exactly what pages the professor is assigning," he said.
Flooding the market with new books also makes old ones less valuable. "Some of the books I was able to sell back, but with the science textbooks, new editions come out so frequently… it was useless to sell," said Priya Shivraj, a senior double majoring in biology and Spanish at New York University.