Skip to content

Should students really be paying this much for textbooks?

Posted on:October 30, 2022 at 12:00 PM

POV: Should students really be paying this much for textbooks?

It’s time for Boston University to incentivize better study habits and ease the financial burden on students by covering the cost of their required materials.

Rithvik Doshi

According to BU’s admissions website, students can expect to pay an eye-watering $1,000 yearly out of pocket for books and supplies. Certainly, a lot of this cost stems from recent economic trends. Though textbook prices are currently keeping up with the inflation rate, from 2002 to 2014, textbook prices were increasing at 3 times the inflation rate.1 Additionally, the textbook publishing industry, being the oligopoly it is, blatantly lets textbook prices soar and releases new versions of textbooks with very few content updates.

As a junior studying computer science at Boston University, I can speak for most students when I say that textbooks are just not worth it. I’m sure some of you relate to ruling out taking a class because it has a lot of required textbooks, or to waiting to purchase textbooks until you know for sure whether you’re actually going to use them in class. Textbooks also bind you financially to the course, which makes it harder to drop the course if you’re not doing well or are not interested in it anymore.

It’s no surprise, then, that student spending on required materials dropped by 41% from 2007 to 2020. largely as the use of digital materials (free, paid and pirated alike) has grown. This trend, if left unchecked, could lead to worse learning outcomes for students as they jeopardize their education to save money.

When I analyzed the BU Barnes and Noble website for textbook prices2, it became clear that a student could pay a varying amount for their education depending on their major. For CS majors, the average price of a rental or digital copy of a textbook is $51.78. By contrast, biology majors, whose classes are 2.5 times more likely to assign a textbook, spend on average $84.30 per class with required course materials, $30 dollars more than if they were a CS major.

This illustrates the growing problem that textbooks are being assigned unequally to students based on their discipline. This problem compounds with the fact that genres of textbooks are also priced unequally; according to bookscouter.com, art textbooks average around $274.41 while chemistry textbooks are almost 5 times cheaper at $56.81.

Given rising book costs, lower textbook purchasing rates by students and a significant inequality in textbook costs across different majors, it is clear that it’s unacceptable for students to be paying for textbooks out of pocket. So, what are some of the ways in which we can start to mitigate this cost?

From the professor’s perspective, I understand that course materials might be a necessity for them to properly teach their class. Though rental and digital materials are rising in popularity and may seem like the solution to artificially inflated textbook prices, course subscription services like Tophat need to be renewed each semester, the cost of which adds up quickly. I urge educators to join a growing trend of professors, especially within the CS major, but also within writing and hub classes, that advocate for course materials to be shared for free. In order to feasibly do this, researchers have suggested using Open Educational Resources as a means to eliminate the textbook barrier to a college education and dramatically improve information access for their students.

Additionally, there are ways in which the university administration can work to realize lower student costs for course materials. One way of achieving this could be by encouraging the use of OERs across the university. The BU Barnes and Noble website lists only one OER textbook on its entire website, and it’s somehow still priced at $30. As such, BU can do a better job publicizing OERs as an innovative and cost-effective solution to textbook costs. Alternatively, if BU doesn’t even want to bother with sourcing OERs, they could simply choose to waive all course material costs. Though this seems expensive, it would actually only cost BU half of a percent of its endowment for a year of free textbooks.3 Even a fraction of that amount could ensure that vulnerable students have the chance to succeed in class.

Finally, to students, I urge you to make your voice heard if this is something you are passionate about. In the short term, buy second hand, rentals and digital copies when you can. As for a longer term solution, talk to professors, administrators and student government and give them your side of the story. It’s not a question of giving students a free pass, but of ensuring an equality of education in a diverse school. More than anything, it’s an opportunity for BU to make sure that all their students have all the materials they need to succeed.

Rithvik Doshi is a computer science major and is enrolled in the Kilachand Honors College at Boston University. He is passionate about using technology and data to talk about pertinent issues in his community. He hopes to complete a masters in computer science at Boston University, hopefully without buying any more textbooks than he already has.

Footnotes

  1. Calculated by comparing the average yearly percentage increase in the consumer price index for textbooks (id: CUUR0000SSEA011) with the average inflation rate, data sourced from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  2. Spreadsheet of findings as of Oct 28, 2022

  3. Based on BU’s own estimate that a student spends $1,000 a year on textbooks, multiplying that by the undergraduate student population, giving a total of $17.59M spent, and dividing by BU’s endowment, which stands at $3.35B as of 2021.