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.


Vintage Idaho – Textbook costs in 1983


This nostalgic look at textbook costs in the early 1980s is brought to you by the 1983 Gem of the Mountains Digital Yearbook.

A Pain in the Pocketbook

As the cash register beeps away, a nervous student stands clenching his checkbook, hoping he’ll have enough money to purchase a semester’s worth of textbooks. Finally, the cashier pushes the final button and the verdict appears on the register.

“That will be $134.50,” the clerk says.

Grumbling to himself, the student fills out his check and leaves the bookstore – mourning the new low in his checking account. This scene is repeated thousands of times each semester as students flock to the bookstore to purchase required textbooks.

According to Peg Goodwin, textbook manager, the average student spends roughly $100 to $150 per semester on textbooks, with the average hardbound edition selling for about $22.

Students often receive a false impression about the textbook business, however. The bookstore’s 20% mark-up barely covers the cost of selling the books, stated Goodwin. Shipping charges and employee wages are among the costs which must be covered by the mark-up. The bookstore also loses money on the books that aren’t sold.

“Generally, it’s not textbooks that make money at a university bookstore,” Goodwin said.

Many students also think the bookstore selects the textbooks which are sold, but, according to Goodwin, faculty members make the decision.

At the end of the semester, students can return their texts for a partial refund. If the university plans to use the book the following semester, the student receives 50 percent of the current market price, even if the book was purchased used.

Books which have been discontinued by the UI, however, are purchased by the textbook company representative at a substantially lower price.

As the dilemma of expensive textbooks continues, it is (at least) comforting to know the financial burden only strikes twice a year.