Published on 2012/06/21

Faculty Hold the Keys to Lower Textbook Costs—But Do They Care?

At the moment, costs don’t seem to factor into the decision whether or not to assign a textbook. But when there is such a great demand on higher education institutions to reduce their costs, perhaps it is time for alternatives to be found. Photo by Logan Ingalls.

Do faculty care about the costs of textbooks and other learning materials? I spoke to a faculty member recently, off the record, and asked him questions about how faculty select textbooks for their courses and how much affordability plays into that decision. Do you know what he said? He very unambiguously stated that textbook costs have nothing to do with him and they play no part in his textbook adoption/selection process. Did I mention the school at which he teaches is a public institution, is located in a city, and serves historically under-represented students?

There is a battle waging out there. Students want to pay less for higher education. Schools need to cover the cost of running a school. So students shop around for universities that have the right price point in terms of tuition, but what about fees for important materials such as textbooks? Faculty might not have a direct impact on what courses cost, but often, they do hold the keys to choosing learning materials for the subjects they teach.

So, why does textbook affordability matter so much?

One, the textbooks selected for coursework often overburden students’ budgets and increase risk of attrition. Students see the tuition coming (well, in most cases), but they are not financially prepared for the cost of textbooks. So learning materials get dumped on the (already full) Visa or Mastercard. And while financial aid technically covers book costs, by the time students get the funds (or figure out how they work), classes are usually already in full swing and students need to be reading chapter 4 (but instead are considering Chapter 11).

Two, and if you are into online, blended or other interactive learning trends, this reason should be up your alley. I have this theory that continuing education, distance/online and other ‘new-traditional’ students might be a better match for interactive learning materials than your 18-21, campus-centric set (and I know I am not the only one who thinks that). New-traditional students can tip the scales of adoption in terms of new media such as high quality, low cost digital materials. In fact, in the last online course I took, all of the materials were digital (and free).

One of the toughest parts about being involved with online, continuing education, and other new-traditional student populations is the lack of publicly available research on how these students learn. For example, what kinds of learning materials work best? Though the new-traditional student population tends to be older, is often seeking a less campus-centric education, and may not be as interested in social learning experiences, there is some logic to the theory that new-traditional students might be more likely to engage in alternative learning materials.

The 18-21 year old, campus-based students seem to be saying with their wallets, ‘We like physical textbooks better.’ But given the fact that online and hybrid students may be more familiar with web-based learning processes, perhaps this group is ideal to test and determine if e-books and other digital learning materials serve them better than hard copy texts. Someone’s likely already done it.

We hear about reasons why students in general are not going digital with textbooks…Not all textbooks have a digital version available, even millenials still grew up with physical texts in the classroom, you can’t sell back e-books, and so on. Basically, it is easier to find your books all in one place, such as a discount book e-tailer, highlight the books as needed, and sell them back to that same online bookstore to recoup some of your costs.

Further, some of the larger publishers have highly interactive supplemental materials, particularly in the areas of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and language, which make buying the new edition of a textbook ‘worth it’ in terms of a richer learning experience. Many used texts do not come with the key code or user names and passwords to access these interactive online platforms.

In the end, faculty and administrators best serve their students by giving them options. Choices, such as texts that are available in various formats and price points, are really what the students want. Faculty can research which textbooks are working best at peer institutions and follow technology initiatives like the Open Educational Resource movement (where online texts can often be downloaded free of cost). There is an expectation that faculty are performing their due diligence by looking for the highest quality, most affordable texts that match their discipline, teaching style, and student population. And according to the textbook information provision sec. 133 of HEOA (the Higher Education Opportunity Act)[1], faculty, along with other key stakeholders, are “encourage(d)” to “work together to identify ways to decrease the cost of college textbooks and supplemental materials for students while supporting the academic freedom of faculty members to select high quality course materials for students,” effective July 1, 2010. While the provision puts most of the onus on publishers and institutions, faculty wield much of the power to make a difference by selecting texts based on content and affordability (rather than assigning books simply because they have been assigned for decades).

Researching texts and online learning materials to determine which are high quality and affordable has been historically challenging. The information is disparate. But new sites are popping up to help overcome these obstacles. One such aggregator of this information is a free web resource called the Akademos Textbook Adoption Tool [2]. The site aims to make it easier for faculty to search, discover, compare and adopt texts. The tool helps faculty get out of their comfort zone and view what other faculty are using—faculty can see which schools have adopted which books and review user-generated faculty reviews about which materials they use in their coursework and how these texts are performing. By using faculty peer ratings as a key measure of quality, the site is helping good college textbooks, which might not otherwise be seen, rise to the top.

Now that it is getting easier to find texts that best fit both teacher and student, will faculty transition to high quality texts that are more affordable? Do you think new-traditional students are more likely to tip the scales in favor of digital when it comes to e-textbooks? Do online students benefit more in terms of learning outcomes from using digital texts that parallel their online course delivery experiences? How can we continue to encourage faculty to give students more alternatives in types and sources of textbooks and learning materials?

As usual, more questions than answers. I believe faculty truly care about these issues. But the only way to know is to hear it from them en masse and to watch them transform the way in which texts are selected in the future.

– – – –




Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Impact of Online Shopping on Higher Education

Learn to implement eCommerce best practices and create a positive learning experience.

Read here

Readers Comments

WA Anderson 2012/06/21 at 8:47 am

When I assign a textbook the first thing I think about is the quality of the material it holds. Cost is secondary.

I think we need to begin to pressure publishers on the price of the materials they;re distributing, rather than telling professors to prioritize cost when selecting course materials

J Mathew 2012/06/21 at 10:49 am

What about the fact that professors require students to buy the latest edition (at a significantly higher price as compared to a used version of a previous edition) when there is very little difference in the versions?

I’ve also been asked to purchase the supplemental material (workbooks, digital edition) only to not ever use it during the course.

I think the textbook costs need to be factored into the overall price of higher education and professors need to be held accountable.

Anonymous 2012/06/21 at 11:13 am

You would better serve your readers if you provided, you know, a single fact. Your entire blog entry rests on your anecdotal conversation with *one* faculty member. I know twenty that think otherwise, and that yearly perform lit reviews to find the best balance of quality and value for their students.

I understand you “have this theory,” but please back your assertions up with a longitudinal study or *any* study. If they are hard to come by, conduct your own study, then publish the results. THAT would be more useful than this blog, which is, clearly, an attempt to bolster the status of non-traditional education and denigrate brick and mortar schools (such as your assignation of laziness when you write “assigning books simply because they have been assigned for decades.”).

Kristopher Patterson 2012/06/21 at 11:34 am

I agree with WA Anderson, “When I assign a textbook the first thing I think about is the quality of the material it holds. Cost is secondary.”

However, where/when possible, I do try and find reputable e-text/books where available to offset costs.

Anonymous 2012/06/21 at 12:05 pm

Thank you for an interesting article. I appreciate the attempt to question current educational standards when it comes to selecting textbooks, as well as your desire to elicit an emotional response from current faculty. I wonder if the previous anonymous comment was left by a professor who so clearly felt personally attacked that their form of constructive criticism came across as both condescending and belittling. As a fellow student, I appreciate the author’s willingness to broach a topic that is becoming more and more of an issue during these times of rising tuition costs and modern day technological advancements. For an industry that is designed to produce the next generation of forward thinkers, there seems to be a lack of reflection and adaptation found within it’s own walls. Perhaps the opinion stated in this blog was an attempt to broach the topic and elicit a dialogue that might bring about some change for both educational institutions and publishing companies alike.

Ingrid Ramos Nakamura 2012/06/21 at 12:56 pm

@WA Anderson – I definitely agree that quality comes first. After quality, I hope that affordability is taken into account as well. So this is not just about list price, but how many used books are in the market at this time, how early do faculty get their lists in so students have more selection, is the book available in digital format (which is often cheaper, though only avail for a limited time and cannot be sold back), what are the differences btwn the editions, etc. I think these issues can be taken into account in the adoption process. And in many cases, they are.

@J Mathew – The difference btwn new and old editions of textbooks is a big issue. Faculty have told us they are looking for objective sources that list the key additions to the text so faculty can determine if the new edition is needed to improve learning outcomes for that course. Unfortunately, right now, much of this information, if it exists, is scattered and hard to find.

But, there is hope! Within sec 133 of HEOA (mentioned in the article above), AKA, the textbook provision of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, publishers are required to provide “a description of the substantial content revisions made between the current edition of the college textbook or supplemental material and the previous edition, if any.” The GAO is due to report back on the progress of this provision in July 2013. Let’s see how it is working. Here is a link to that provision –

@Anonymous – I am definitely interested in seeing more research on how brick and mortar students vs. online students engage in various types of learning materials, so if anyone knows where to find these, I would like to review them.

Theories really are just conjectures waiting for someone to come along and prove or disprove them with facts. As I said to @J Mathew, when the GAO releases their accountability report about the textbook provision of HEO, I think we will have more facts about how publishers, institutions, faculty and other key stakeholders are cooperating with the intention of the act. In addition, I am currently reviewing thousands of data points that will help determine which schools have “more affordable” texts, so hopefully more on that soon.

The best way I know how to determine if faculty are using “quality texts” is to ask them–which I have done here in the faculty reviews section – When we collect enough data, I will try and report back on that as well.

Regarding any intention to denigrate brick and mortar schools, I can say, that is not the position I hold. I hold most institutions in the highest regard–and each type has served me well in various points of my life, career and overall lifelong commitment to education. I am suggesting that courses which rely predominantly on digital or non-commercial texts such as OER might be leveraging technology to stay a step ahead of the issue of textbook affordability.

To the many faculty members who do take on lit reviews consistently, I say, it is really up to you to take the torch and run with it. Who else but faculty that are invested in choosing the best materials for their students are going to lead, change mindsets, and change the course of the textbook adoption process?

Jon Nash 2012/06/22 at 1:55 am

Thank you for shining light on yet another contributor to the cost of getting a quality education.

Anonymous 2012/06/25 at 8:18 am

When I was an adjunct professor, I would have welcomed a way to review textbooks across a spectrum of titles which had been reviewed by my peers and shown by affordability. I was left having to find this information out on my own or via a biased publisher representative. Content and quality IS important but so is cost to the student. If given two comparable titles, I would choose the more adorable every time.

RedBrains 2012/06/25 at 9:40 am

I think its important to remember that material quality and material cost don’t have to be at odds — which is I think an important point of this article. Many professors don’t put seem to consider cost into their decisions AT ALL — and when students are faced with enormous bills twice a year which just get rolled into their long-term debt, we have a real problem to be solved.

Rather than just accepting a new edition of the same old book each year, faculty could at least do more research on what has changed, and whether they’re curriculum will even be affected by the new content.

Matt Langan 2012/06/25 at 10:00 am

Very enlightening article — especially the intro that showcases how this particular faculty member did not factor the cost of textbooks in deciding course materials.

Ideally, this should be the other way around with faculty caring tremendously. As many students are stuck with astronomical-levels of debt (just to cover tuition), the cost of textbooks are just another financial burden.

As a father of three young children, I fear what the future will hold when it comes to the cost of higher education. As such, I sincerely hope that faculty will embrace new solutions like the Textbook Adoption Tool from Akademos. These types of solutions will allow faculty to choose the right course materials at the right price.

Let’s hope that the market will correct itself when it comes to the cost of higher education. Or, the reality is that none of us will be able to retire…or worse, our children will be saddled with crushing debt that will follow them for years to come.

John S 2012/06/25 at 10:01 am

The pace of change in the textbook publishing industry may not be as fast as some wish, as the movement to high quality digital textbooks is sluggish at best, but one could argue that publishers are doing what’s necessary to protect a high quality, if not expensive, publishing model. In music, newspapers, magazines and trade publishing, the race to digital delivery has gutted the publishers’ ability to continue to deliver a quality product, largely due to the disruptive course many in their industries took to put content online for free.

Obviously, textboks are expensive to produce, particularly in the STEM subject areas. And while the publishers have not done themselves any favors by forcing students to buy new editions every year, at least they have preserved their model while they experiment with new opportunities like the ancillary product areas you mention, that will allow them to continue to produce high quality books as they move to digital distribution. It will be interesting to see if they can navigate this shift without suffering the horrific revenue erosion we’ve seen in other media.

Anonymous 2012/06/26 at 12:08 pm

Another aspect to this issue is that digital textbooks often expire after 6 months or a year, depending on the publisher or title. The fact that students have limited access to online texts (or even the physical text, if the book was rented) means the cost of ownership can be even higher in the long run if the student needs to re-up the subscription or later buy a physical copy.

Brad Herrick 2012/10/09 at 12:23 am

I teach a freshman chemistry course and became so tired of the near $300 price tag for textbooks that I wrote my own. I don’t charge students for use as I have embedded necessary portions in the course when they need it. It has no format (it is written as conceptual relationships) and there is no ‘one’ copy to download and give away as the course is adaptive and not everyone gets the same materials.

I understand this method is not for every subject, but in other courses, several colleagues have seen substantial benefit to collaborative efforts with other institutions to make some outstanding ‘in-house’ textbooks at little or no cost to students. By the way, this same collaboration can produce non-proprietary test questions, illustrations, demonstrations, etc for use online or in the classroom.

I’m not trying to put publishers out of business, but with high textbook costs, increasing student debt, and constantly being harassed to purchase the next edition, I had finally had enough.

Nancy 2014/04/16 at 4:56 pm

The idea of your textbook comparison website is a good one. I wish you luck with building it up. It would be especially useful if the “details” on each textbook included the text’s Table of Contents.

Not to be snarky, but your person-on-the-street use of the word “theory” is disconcerting on an academic blog. Social scientists teach our students that a “theory” is not merely an opinion, guess, or conjecture. It is a generalization about some causal relationship that has been developed on the basis of an extensive scholarly literature and tested against data and qualitative evidence. Your conjectures about textbook adoptions are perhaps “preliminary hypotheses.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *