The reality of high textbook costs

By Torrey Feldman

Maybe if textbooks had edible pages, students wouldn’t have to skip meals in order to do their reading assignments. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, textbook prices have risen a almost 1000% in recent years — more than three times the rate of inflation. With such a gargantuan increase in prices, it’s not hard to see how textbooks create a financial burden for college students today, or why stories like these are commonplace: “The expensive textbook ultimatum: buy a meal or be prepared for class” (via the Daily Tar Heel).

College textbook publisher Cengage conducted a survey titled, “College Students Consider Buying Course Materials a Top Source of Financial Stress”. The results revealed that, “about 43% of students surveyed said they skipped meals because of the expense for books, about 70% said they took on a part-time job because of the the added costs, and around 30% said they had to take fewer classes” (per Education Dive). These numbers are alarming and should be considered unacceptable on any college campus, but it feels ironic to see these conclusions coming from Cengage, given their role in raising textbook costs and causing the problem to begin with.

The instant students are sacrificing their biological needs – or seriously disrupting their course of study – in order to afford textbooks, we must immediately ask ourselves what that says about the values of our higher education system. Unfortunately, this problem is vast and growing.

A March 2017 study conducted by the Wisconsin Hope Lab found that, “one-third of community college students experiencing food and/or housing insecurity were both working and receiving financial aid.” Though this was the largest study of its size at the time, the authors acknowledged that almost no other efforts have been made to determine the exact causes of financial stressors on students that contribute to food insecurity and homelessness. Regardless, 33% of students identified eligible for the US Department of Education’s Financial Aid services were still struggling to live, eat, and study harmoniously.

Consider the psychological effects of trying to pay attention in class when a student doesn’t have any food in the fridge – or that the fridge is in an overcrowded apartment that  the student is struggling to make pay for. Think about how a student might have to choose going to work in order to pay rent on time over going to class – or that an entire paycheck might only buy  the materials for one or two courses.

Even more – consider that these costs come well after many students have drained their savings and financial aid paying for tuition.

We should be doing everything possible to alleviate these problems, and one area that has an easy solution is textbook costs. Not turning toward publisher ‘reduced-cost’ options, but investing in OER, which are reliable, credible, and reduce costs for students to zero.

Seeing as though paper pages in a textbook can only aid a student’s hunger to learn and not their biological need for food to stay awake, alert, and alive in class, we now have an economic problem on our hands that has a seemingly simple and readily available solution.

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