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:
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- I wonder how many faculty members are wrathful as their royalties dwindle.
- 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.