Students are driving textbook prices down and OER forward

While textbook prices are high, increasing numbers of students aren’t paying them.  That’s the conclusion of a new study (press release)*, and it points the way forward to piracy and for open education.

One key finding is that the amount students actually pay for textbooks – as opposed to their sticker prices – has declined massively over the past decade:


textbook spending 2007-2018_NACS

That’s about a 30% drop.

How is this occurring?  Students need textbooks for classes, right?  The National Association of College Stories (NACS) found several reasons.  Let’s break them down.

Borrowing Rather than pay for a book, some students are paying reduced prices for temporary access – i.e., borrowing or renting the material.  According to Inside Higher Ed’s summary, “44 percent rented and 12 percent borrowed.”  So nearly one half of students borrow textbooks now.

OER  Open educational resource (OER) use keeps rising.  “32 percent of students reported using free course materials, compared with 25 percent last year and 19 percent in 2016…”  Listen to how many instructors have made this happen: “Just under 60 percent said their professors had provided them with the free materials…”

Piracy 17% of students “admitted to perhaps illegally downloading course materials from torrent or peer-to-peer sharing sites.”  Note that this is surely lowered than the real number, as who wants to confess to possible crimes, and on record?  In addition, Lisa Hinchliffe observes that some might pirate materials without being aware of it.

Missing from all of these discussions: the Great Recession (note what year that graph above starts), the halting recovery since, and the rise of impoverished students unsupported by financial aid, as Sara Goldrick-Rab explains.

Also missing: the library’s role.  How many learners check out textbooks or just read them on site?

Meanwhile, a majority still (or also) buy the old-fashioned way, with”65% buying new print.”

What does this tell us about the future of educational content?  I have several quick and possibly overlapping or contradictory thoughts.

  1. We may be closing in on a giant flip for textbooks towards OER.  Look at those numbers again: 19, 25, then 32 percent of students using open.  A simple extrapolation puts that into a majority in just a few years (40 in 2019, 49 in 2020…).  And the curve could bend more sharply with media attention.
  2. Piracy is a big driver.  That 17% claimed is significant.  Since it’s probably higher than that – say 33% – the textbook market may well be strongly shaped by piratical customers.
  3. There’s a lot of overlap between these findings.  For example, 65% buy print textbooks, while 17% pirate, and 32% use OER?  Individuals must be choosing several simultaneous paths – i.e., pirating one, buying another, accessing an open third.
  4. I wonder how many faculty members are wrathful as their royalties dwindle.
  5. What a churning market!  Students are changing their behavior.  Some faculty are helping make OER available.  Companies are scrambling.  Technology has shocked the lot.

Questions: does anyone see a way the textbook market could return to where it was in, say, 2005?  And is this a success story of technology helping students?

*The study itself isn’t online, at least not on the open web.  It’s available upon request.  I have requested, but not heard back as of this writing.

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4 Responses to Students are driving textbook prices down and OER forward

  1. Ted Major says:

    “How many faculty members are wrathful as their royalties dwindle”?

    My guess is not that many. Most higher ed institutions aren’t big research universities. At the community college where I teach, we have around 100 full time faculty, and as far as I know, not one of us gets textbook royalties. I would guess that the number of faculty who have written textbooks is a pretty tiny minority.

    I think there are a lot more of us glad to see our students not get stiffed for a low-quality product. I’ve never seen a text for any of the classes I teach that wasn’t bad.

    The trends you point to also shed light on Cengage’s new one-price etext model: if your books are getting pirated and dropped for OERs, then maybe getting $120 from a student for all of their textbooks is better than losing more market share, with the added bonus of potential departmental or college lock-in.

  2. The old school textbook publishing racket is, I hope, dying a slow and painful death, as their extortionist tactics were to nobody’s benefit but their own. The internet now has all the materials on it that anyone in the language, literature and communications departments would ever need; OERs are absolutely the present and future for us. I don’t care to speak to the needs of the science and tech faculty; their mileage may differ.

    Very encouraging study!

  3. stevenb says:

    Bryan, as a futurist, do you think the “textbook” terminology has a future? To my way of thinking it is an antiquated concept. The future would seem to be more about “digital curricular strategies” or something like that. There won’t be a single block of text with or without associated quizzes/slides/polls, etc. Rather faculty will work with colleagues to assemble packages of learning content that is more customized to the needs of their students – leveraging both OER and licensed library content.

    I’d also be curious about your thoughts on – and maybe this is a future column – why open appears to be impacting textbook costs but open is doing a thing to lower journal costs. I suspect the difference is (a) students can opt to not buy textbooks even if it doing so negatively impacts their learning – but libraries cannot opt out of journal subscriptions that faculty want (or at least not without causing pain) (b) there is no secondary market for journals that way there is for textbooks; libraries have to buy or subscribe to the latest issues and backfiles – and there is no used market where bargains can be found (c) lack of competition or alternate resources – while what’s happening in the textbook market is definitely affect sales the presence of open journals is not a strong enough competitive force to take business away from the established publishers. Or – is what is happening with textbooks so different a case from scholarly journals that you can’t even make a comparison – or draw lessons from that could be used to lower costs of journal subscriptions.

  4. Pingback: National OER Digest – August 23, 2018 – CTL Newsletter

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