By Phil Hill
With all of the talk about the unreasonably high price of college textbooks, the unfulfilled potential of open educational resources (OER), and student difficulty in paying for course materials, it is surprising how little is understood about student textbook expenses. The following two quotes illustrate the most common problem.
Atlantic: “According to a recent College Board report, university students typically spend as much as $1,200 a year total on textbooks.”
US News: “In a survey of more than 2,000 college students in 33 states and 156 different campuses, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found the average student spends as much as $1,200 each year on textbooks and supplies alone.”
While I am entirely sympathetic to the need and desire to lower textbook and course material prices for students, no one is served well by misleading information, and this information is misleading. Let’s look at the actual sources of data and what that data tells us, focusing on the aggregate measures of changes in average textbook pricing in the US and average student expenditures on textbooks. What the data tells us is that the answer is that students spend on average $600 per year on textbooks, not $1,200.
First, however, let’s address the all-too-common College Board reference.
College Board Reference
The College Board positions itself as the source for the cost of college, and their reports look at tuition (published and net), room & board, books & supplies, and other expenses. This chart is the source of most confusion.
The light blue “Books and Supplies” data, ranging from $1,225 to $1,328, leads to the often-quoted $1,200 number. But look at the note right below the chart:
Other expense categories are the average amounts allotted in determining total cost of attendance and do not necessarily reflect actual student expenditures.
That’s right – the College Board just adds budget estimates for the books & supplies category, and this is not at all part of their actual survey data. The College Board does, however, point people to one source that they use as a rough basis for their budgets.
According to the National Association of College Stores, the average price of a new textbook increased from $62 (in 2011 dollars) in 2006-07 to $68 in 2011-12. Students also rely on textbook rentals, used books, and digital resources. (http://www.nacs.org/research/industrystatistics/higheredfactsfigures.aspx)
The College Board is working to help people estimate the total cost of attendance; they are not providing actual source data on textbook costs, nor do they even claim to do so. Reporters and advocates just fail to read the footnotes. The US Public Interest Research Group is one of the primary reasons that journalists use the College Board data incorrectly, but I’ll leave that subject for another post.
The other issue is the combination of books and supplies. Let’s look at actual data and sources specifically for college textbooks.
Average Textbook Price Changes
What about the idea that textbook prices keep increasing?
BLS and Textbook Price Index
The primary source of public data for this question is the Consumer Price Index (CPI) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The CPI sets up a pricing index based on a complex regression model. The index is set to 100 for December, 2001 when they started tracking this category. Using this data tool for series CUUR0000SSEA011 (college textbooks), we can see the pricing index from 2002 – 2014[1 ].
This data equates to roughly 6% year-over-year increases in the price index of new textbooks, roughly doubling every 11 years. But note that this data is not inflation-adjusted, as the CPI is used to help determine the inflation rate. Since the US average inflation rate over 2002 – 2014 has averaged 2%, this means that textbook prices are rising roughly 3 times the rate of inflation.
NACS and Average Price Per Textbook
NACS, as its name implies, surveys college bookstores to determine what students spend on various items. The College Board uses them as a source. This is the most concise summary. also showing rising textbook prices on a raw, non inflation-adjusted basis, although a lower rate of increase than the CPI.
The following graph for average textbook prices is based on data obtained in the annual financial survey of college stores. The most recent data for “average price” was based on the sale of 3.4 million new books and 1.9 million used books sold in 134 U.S. college stores, obtained in the Independent College Stores Financial Survey 2013-14.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) did a study in 2013 looking at textbook pricing, but their data source was the BLS. This chart, however, is popularly cited.
There are several private studies done by publishers or service companies that give similar results, but by definition these are not public.
Student Expenditure on Books and Supplies
For most discussion on textbook pricing, the more relevant question is what do students actually spend on textbooks, or at least on required course materials. Does the data above indicate that students are spending more and more every year? The answer is no, and the reason is that there are far more options today for getting textbooks than there used to
be, and one choice – choosing not to acquire the course materials – is rapidly growing. According to Student Monitor, 30% of students choose to not acquire every college textbook.
Prior to the mid 2000s, the rough model for student expenditures was that roughly 65% purchased new textbooks and 35% bought used textbooks. Today, there are options for rentals, digital textbooks, and courseware, and the ratios are changing.
The two primary public sources for how much students spend on textbooks are the National Association of College Stores (NACS) and The Student Monitor.
The NACS also measures average student expenditure for required course materials, which is somewhat broader than textbooks but does not include non-required course supplies.
The latest available data on student spending is from Student Watch: Attitudes & Behaviors toward Course Materials, Fall 2014. Based on survey data, students spent an average of $313 on their required course materials, including purchases and rentals, for that fall term. Students spent an average of $358 on purchases for “necessary but not required” technology, such as laptops, USB drives, for the same period.
Note that by the nature of analyzing college bookstores, NACS is biased towards traditional face-to-face education and students aged 18-24.
Update: I should have described the NACS methodology in more depth (or probably need a follow-on post), but their survey is distributed through the bookstore to students. Purchasing through Amazon, Chegg, rental, and decisions not to purchase are all captured in that study. It’s not flawless, but it is not just for purchases through the bookstore. From the study itself:
Campus bookstores distributed the survey to their students via email. Each campus survey fielded for a two week period in October 2013. A total of 12,195 valid responses were collected. To further strengthen the accuracy and representativeness of the responses collected, the data was weighted based on gender using student enrollment figures published in The Chronicle of Higher Education: 2013/2014 Almanac. The margin of error for this study is +/- 0.89% at the 95% confidence interval.
Student Monitor is a company that provides syndicated and custom market research, and they produce extensive research on college expenses in the spring and fall of each year. This group interviews students for their data, rather than analyzing college bookstore financials, which is a different methodology than NACS. Based on the Fall 2014 data specifically on textbooks, students spent an average of $320 per term, which is quite close to the $638 per year calculated by NACS. Based on information from page 126:
Average Student Acquisition of Textbooks by Format/Source for Fall 2014
- New print: 59% of acquirers, $150 total mean
- Used print: 59% of acquirers, $108 total mean
- Rented print: 29% of acquirers, $38 total mean
- eTextbooks (unlimited use): 16% of acquirers, $15 total mean
- eTextbooks (limited use): NA% of acquirers, $9 total mean
- eTextbooks (file sharing): 8% of acquirers, $NA total mean
- Total for Fall 2014: $320 mean
- Total on Annual Basis: $640 mean
Note, however, that the Fall 2014 data ($640 annual) represents a steep increase from the previous trend as reported by NPR (but based on Student Monitor data). I have asked Student Monitor for commentary on the increase but have not heard back (yet).
Like NACS, Student Monitor is biased towards traditional face-to-face education and students aged 18-24.
I would summarize the data as follows:
- According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). new college textbook prices have risen by roughly 6% per year since 2001, which is approximately 3 times the rate of inflation.
- According to the National Association of College Stores (NACS). the average new college textbook price rose from $57 in 2007 to $79 in 2013.
- According to the General Accountability Office (GAO) , from 2002 – 2012 college tuition and fees rose 89% and average new college textbook prices rose 82% while overall consumer prices rose only 28%.
- According to the National Association of College Stores (NACS). the average college student’s expenditures on required course materials dropped from $701 in the 2007/08 school year to $638 in the 2013/14 school year.
- According to Student Monitor and Quoctrung Bui/NPR. per capita college student expenditures on textbooks has stayed relatively flat at approximately $600 per year.
The shortest answer is that US college students spend an average of $600 per year on textbooks despite rising retail prices.
I would not use College Board as a source on this subject, as they do not collect their own data on textbook pricing or expenditures, and they only use budget estimates.
I would like to thank Rob Reynolds from NextThought for his explanation and advice on the subject.
Update (3/25): See note on NACS above.
Update (3/27): See postcript post for additional information on data sources."How Much Do College Students Actually Pay For Textbooks?". 5 out of 5 based on 2 ratings.
- Note that BLS has a category CUSR0000SEEA (Educational Books & Supplies) that has been tracked far longer than the sub-category College Textbooks. We’ll use the textbooks to simplify comparisons. [↩ ]