Horrifying and poignant comments from students about textbooks

(Note: These comments were made publicly on a Change.org petition created by the Associated Students of the University of Idaho. The petition and comments can be viewed here.)

These are the voices of the students of the University of Idaho:

Reducing the cost of textbooks would save my life! I spend way too much on books and school itself. I am a single mom and it is so hard paying for school, paying for my daughters, food, living, and bills.

Idaho is a low-income state. We have a low minimum wage, a struggling state economy, and an isolated geography. Nearly half of Idaho K-12 students are from low income households and Idaho is ranked last in the nation for average wages, per-capita income and wage increases.

I’m signing because students that come from low income families struggle to even pay for college let alone buy textbooks. The amount of money students pay for textbooks could equate to the amount of buying groceries for up to three months. At times, professors barely even use the textbooks.

The affordability of higher education is one of the most critical, and talked about, issues in academia today. As state and federal support for colleges and universities, as well as student financial aid, have declined sharply over the past ten years, institutions have accordingly increased tuition and fees. Additionally, over the past decade textbook prices have increased by 82%, three times the rate of inflation (GAO).

My text book cost for this semester alone was over $1,000.00. As a student who has to pay this out of pocket, this is outrageously expensive and I have found in a majority of my classes that we never even crack open the text book.

According to the College Board, the average student spends $1,200 per year on textbooks and other course materials. As a result, students are choosing to go without. In a 2013 survey, 65% of students reported that they had decided not to purchase a textbook due to cost.

I can’t afford both books and food. I have to choose to either eat or pass my classes right now.

As a librarian trying to convince faculty to consider using open textbooks, I spend the majority of my time demonstrating the efficacy of the materials, highlighting the easy customization of open textbooks, and pointing to studies that show both students and faculty enjoy using these alternatives to traditional print textbooks.

Looking at these comments, however, I think perhaps simply letting the students speak about their experiences could be the most effective strategy. The students are really the experts here.

If there are alternative versions that will teach us just as well, and that are free, why the hell are we not already using these?


A summary of trends in student comments

After a significant amount of time in this expensive textbook environment, students learn strategies and make their own decisions about whether to purchase required books:

Textbook costs are ridiculous. I have to bend over backwards to avoid spending 500 dollars a semester on textbooks. This semester, a teacher told us the first day of class that he would not be assigning problems from the listed textbook, so I purchased an edition outdated by six years. It is identical, down to the text and diagrams, and cost me 30 dollars with shipping. The listed book cost over 200 dollars. This is absurd!

They are cognizant of the role big academic publishers play:

$200 for a semester’s access to an online homework code can’t be called anything but a rip-off.

At times textbooks change minimally and yet get priced way over the price of an older version when only a few changes have been made.

I’m signing because text book prices are outrageous. Access codes are overpriced and don’t add much value. Text books sometimes cannot be reused because they have one time access codes printed in them. I do not like that professor’s team up with companies and receive commissions for us choosing their book and having us buy it. Textbook companies know they have us cornered and that we have to purchase the materials, therefore they price gouge us to death. This needs to stop.

And some take issue with their professors:

Teachers should put together their own courses like they are paid to do, not just copy-paste part to all of the course from the textbook publisher.

Many students made economic arguments about the affordability of the books:

Spending high amounts on textbooks can be hard for some people when they already to struggle to pay for school. I have been in a place where I couldn’t afford to buy the $200 textbook and my grade suffered because of it.

Textbooks should not be a reason I have to take out a loan!

I prefer to eat a decent amount of food every day rather than buying overpriced products that aren’t beneficial.

The textbooks I buy end up sitting on my shelf gathering dust and I end up wasting hundreds of dollars. If I removed even a hundred dollars from the cost of my book, I could have spent ten more hours studying or in the lab researching instead of working to make the money to buy something that I don’t need.

The price of textbooks (on top of ever rising tuition prices), makes day to day life difficult for many college students. The decision between going hungry and buying a textbook for class should never be one a student has to make.

The cost of tuition is high enough… we don’t need to be putting ourselves into further debt just to be able to read textbooks!

Additionally, students are frustrated with how little required texts get used:

It’s ridiculous how expensive these books are for how little use they actually get, and how little we get back when we are finished with the class.

Textbooks are far too expensive. I have spent so much money on ones I barely ever opened.

$235 is far too much for a textbook I will never use.

It is difficult to buy textbooks when and if you only use half the book for a class.

Some books are outrageously expensive for an often one time use.

I’ve bought too many “required” textbooks that I never had to use.

One of my textbooks cost $600…used and I’ve opened it twice. This is ridiculous.

I’ve spent around $900 on textbooks for two semesters, some of which I never used or were expensive rentals that I opened only a handful of times.

Sometimes buying textbooks feels like high-way robbery. Particularly considering how little you use them for some classes.

I spent way too much money on text books while I was at the U of I and honestly didn’t use half of them. They are so expensive to buy, yet when you try to sell them back you only get $5-$20.


And, they have solutions in mind:

There are many solutions to reduce these costs including open textbooks, and intentionally recommending an older, but comparable version.

Experiencing the open source format in Statistics has made me wonder why more Professors aren’t using them. $9.94 for a paperback copy printed by Amazon seems like a no-brainer to me.

It seems like a no-brainer to me, too.


Open textbooks – benefits and challenges for universities

(Note: this is a summary of sorts for a presentation I gave at the 2015 Idaho Library Association Conference.)

Copyright was invented at a time when ideas could only really be expressed in physical objects, like books. Today we are not just dealing with physical items anymore. Think of the newspaper. It used to be that you could only access a newspaper in physical form. You could give that newspaper to your friend to read, or they could read it over your shoulder. Now, newspapers can be delivered through digital means. And now everyone (with an internet connection) can view the NY Times online at the same time. This sets a different state for the sharing of information. I can share things without giving them away. Everyone gets a copy. This is a very different kind of situation from when copyright was created.


This photo, “Classic OPTE Project Map of the Internet 2005” is copyright (c) 2009 Mike Lee and made available under a Attribution 2.0 license

This big, beautiful interconnected thing that is the internet makes it much easier to share things. But copyright is designed to put barriers around information so creators can keep creating.

Creative Commons licensing alleviates this situation a bit. CC licenses are copyright licenses that use the power and strength of copyright law to enforce sharing rather than putting barriers around sharing. CC licenses indicate that you WANT this material to be shared in this way. They provide a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to creative work. They cover permission, attribution, commercial use, and future sharing. There are a variety of flavors in CC licenses:

Screenshot 2016-01-11 13.00.53

Open educational resources (OERs) are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, texts, software, and any other tool, material, or technique used to support access to knowledge.


How many of you know students that don’t have equal access to learning materials for one reason or another? It is one of our most common questions at the reference desk, right? There’s a whole spectrum of reasons why students’ wouldn’t have access, although money is the most common.

Textbook prices are high. Since 1985, textbook prices have risen at a higher rate than medical care and gas. Nationally, the average student pays around $1300 each year for textbooks. 65% of students regularly don’t purchase books and 35% will register for fewer courses due to cost. It’s rather clear that the high cost of these books is impacting our students.

Idaho currently ranks 50th in the nation for high school graduates going on to college. According to the National School Boards Association’s (NSBA) Center for Public Education, the #1 reason for not attending college is the cost.

Nearly half of Idaho’s K-12 students are from low-income households. The U.S. Department of Education found that a young person in a low-income community has a 9% chance of completing college.

Screenshot 2016-01-11 13.21.21

And while 24% of Idahoans currently have a college degree, 61% of Idaho jobs will require a college degree by 2018. (Source: National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (2008), Georgetown University, Center on Education and the Workforce, “Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements through 2018” (2010))

Open educational resources present an alternative to the traditional textbook, one that could save students thousands of dollars. Based on data from pilot OER programs across the country, a student will save $128 on average per course. If every full-time undergraduate had just one of their traditional textbooks replaced with an open textbook each year, it could save students nationally almost $1.5 billion in textbook costs. (Source: studentPIRGS)

Open textbooks are the solution

What happens if we start dramatically lowering the cost of required textbooks?

Equality of access. Lowering or removing textbook costs can have a powerful effect on the affordability of a college education and has the potential to improve retention and graduation rates.

Aside from the finances, OER materials are improving student engagement and success. After Mercy College switched over it’s section of college algebra to open textbooks and materials, they noticed a visible increase in passing grades in all OER sections of the course.

This trend is true across all institutions that have adopted OER materials. Students increase their grades and completion rates and will take on more credit hours.

Students increasingly need and expect mobility, flexibility, and ease of access to course materials. Digital media literacy continues to rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession.

Faculty members are looking for alternatives to one size fits all textbooks. Many OER resources and platforms present the opportunity to build one of a kind materials for your courses and students.

Any move towards reducing textbook costs would also be an excellent PR move for university administrators.

And, open course materials can lead to open pedagogy, transforming disposable assignments into renewable assignments. Instead of an assignment being unimportant in the grand scheme of the class, renewable assignments provide lasting value. The students see value in doing them, faculty see value in grading them, and the assignments live on to contribute to the greater good.

One example of a renewable assignment is this collaboration, where a University of British Columbia class completed a class project on Wikipedia. Their collective goal was to bring a selection of articles on Latin American literature to featured article status. By project’s end, they had contributed three feature articles and eight good articles. Visit the project page here.

Each time this professor teaches Project Management for Instructional Designers, a graduate level course, the students revise and remix and improve the course textbook. Class assignments directly relate to creating new content for the textbook or editing current content. At the end of the class, their names are added to the growing author list of collaborators.

Using OER the same way we used commercial textbooks misses the point. In order to best engage students and yourself with the new material, consider taking these steps

  1. OER as worked example – Help students understand the design of the OER you’ve assigned
  1. Remix OER – Assign students to organize and transform OER to teach more effectively
  1. Provide feedback on remixes – Offer multiple types of feedback on student remixes and require revisions
  1. Reciprocal teaching – Have students teach each other using their remixes
  1. Continuous improvement – At end of term, engage in data-based formative evaluation of the course. Incorporate student work in new version as appropriate
  1. Create clarity – Students should understand what their remixes should contain, how they will be graded, and how they potentially will be used
  1. Create trust – Establish relationships with students that demonstrate your confidence in their abilities to create great OER remixes


Real-life Application

Imagine you are teaching Biology 101 next semester. You have a list of learning outcomes your students should be able to demonstrate by the end of the semester, right? One of the best ways to incorporate open educational resources into courses is to map your course learning outcomes to open materials.

For Biology 101, let’s use these two learning outcomes:

  • Demonstrate understanding of cell structure and function
  • Demonstrate understanding of transport into and out of a cell

Then, let’s search for some open textbooks in biology. This one from OpenStax looks good.

Looking through the table of contents, it is easy to spot the sections that would best work with our learning outcomes.



Like the journal publishing industry, it has become clear that something in the system is broken. Open textbooks are not out to get textbook publishers, they are about trying to intervene in an unhealthy process in order to best serve students.

Because this is a student issue. The costs of a college education are rising, including tuition and fees, but textbooks are the one thing we can control in the cost of education conversation.

Idaho needs this. And Idaho can do this. All we have to do is try.