While syllabus week is often seen as a relatively relaxed time of each semester, it is by no means lacking in stressors. One of those stressors is purchasing required course materials. Buying textbooks — more specifically, finding out their costs — was one of the biggest stressors I along with many others faced every semester. I panicked over spending hundreds of dollars on textbooks, a decent portion of which served no purpose beyond taking up space, draining my wallet and collecting dust before I ultimately resold them at a fraction of the cost. As if college tuition wasn’t high enough, college textbooks only perpetuate the affordability crisis of higher education. While professors should be blamed for assigning required textbooks that put an unnecessary financial burden on students, colleges can also play a vital role in ensuring students have access to the resources they need without draining their pockets.
For many college students, paying for tuition is already financially challenging. A survey done by Barnes and Noble College Insights found that 85% of respondents said that paying for higher education for the 2021-2022 school year will be challenging. One unfortunate way students deal with their budget constraints is skipping out on purchasing required course materials. A VitalSources study found that 85% of the students surveyed had chosen to either not buy or delay buying course materials at some point in their college career, and 91% of those students said cost was the ultimate reason they didn’t buy their textbooks. Half of those students also said that their grades suffered because of it. With the average cost of college being $35,720 per year in the United States, there should be no reason that college students should not have access to all the materials they need to be successful in their courses at no additional cost.
Between 2006 and 2016, the price of textbooks increased by 88% and has increased more than 1000% since the 1970s. This has led me and many others to make some difficult choices at the beginning of every semester. I distinctly remember the dilemmas over whether to buy a $300 required textbook or to forgo it and try to find support from free online sources. In one course, a professor of mine insisted that students fork over $350 for the latest edition of an economics textbook, despite their claim that the previous editions were nearly identical, just missing a few of the new practice problems. I debated whether this was an investment worth making. I decided it wasn’t, so I went to Amazon and purchased the previous edition for $12. Not having the required edition had no noticeable impact on my ability to complete the course. This is just one example of the financial burden that professors put on students when they aren’t realistic about what resources are actually necessary for students to succeed in their courses and fail to find the lowest cost option that has a nearly equivalent educational value. My bookshelf full of “required” textbooks that went untouched and are still in their original plastic wrapping also signals that professors are not paying enough attention to what they assign as mandatory textbooks.
This issue becomes increasingly more contentious considering professors are able to make a profit off of students by assigning textbooks that they themselves wrote. Another poll done by Barnes and Noble College Insights found that 67% of respondents, all of whom were currently enrolled college students, “had purchased an assigned book written by their professor.” Despite the American Association of University Professors claiming that there is no conflict of interest in professors assigning work they’ve written, forcing students to line the pockets of professors whose salaries they already pay for is an undeniable ethical quandary. It also raises the issue of the course teaching a single-minded perspective. If professors are already teaching courses based on their perceptions and opinions, especially for subjects whose topics are more subjective, their arguments are being reinforced by materials that come from the same point of view. That doesn’t mean there isn’t value in materials written by professors, but the least professors could do is provide free or even affordable access to them and make sure they are supported by other texts.
Assigning expensive textbooks is not the only option when it comes to providing students with supplemental materials. I was lucky enough to have multiple professors throughout my college career who were advocates of making college more affordable and accessible and only assigned required readings that they provided to students for free. Asking professors and college departments to find materials that are either low-cost or free can even enhance the variety of perspectives that course materials cover and the diversity of opinions contained in classroom discussions.
Covering the costs of students’ textbooks or moving to a model of only assigning readings that are open source is not just a nice-sounding idea. In the wake of the financial crisis due to COVID-19, Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College not only approved a new tuition model that will freeze tuition for the next two years; it is also using its Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund from the federal government to cover the cost of textbooks for the 2021-2022 school year for all of its students. Though that may be a short-term solution, colleges across the country have implemented the decision to only assign free college textbooks long-term.
More broadly, OpenStax is a nonprofit initiative based at Rice University that is working to improve educational access by providing openly licensed books. OpenStax is already used in 48% of colleges across the country, and many colleges have assigned a large portion of their required textbooks from the organization. Pasadena City College, the University of Georgia, Salt Lake Community College and the University of Maryland Global Campus (formerly University of Maryland, University College) are the four largest colleges served by free textbooks from OpenStax — serving nearly 170,000 students total and saving over an estimated $15.5 million for students from those four schools alone.
The current model of demanding college students spend hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars per year on required textbooks, some of which are never even used, is not sustainable. In conjunction with the college tuition affordability crisis, the cost of textbooks is another threat to academic success and student retention. However, the problem is not unsolvable, evidenced by the many colleges across the country working to eliminate affordability barriers of required course materials.
At an individual level, professors still play a crucial role in overcoming this widespread issue. Students shouldn’t have to beg professors to care about the financial burdens of their class. I have great gratitude toward my professors who have made a conscious effort to only assign free materials, but this sentiment must be ingrained in every professors’ decision-making process about required readings. Departments and colleges have the ability to put restraints on the costs of textbooks used, so it should be a concerted undertaking among the various levels within college decision-making hierarchies to make college more affordable and accessible. If colleges stand behind their missions to advance knowledge and to be inclusive and equitable, then their actions must speak louder than their words.
Theodora Vorias is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly implied that all college students are demanded to spend thousands of dollars per year on textbooks. A 2020 College Board report shows that at four-year universities, students were anticipated to budget an average of $410 for course materials for the 2020-21 school year. This indicates that while student spending on textbooks may sometimes be thousands per year, an amount in the hundreds is the expectation.