GWU is “a private institution. A lot of people here have the luxury of saying, ‘I can just buy the books.’ I, personally, can’t,” Reyes said. “I definitely have to find my way around things to thrive.”
As students return to campus for spring semester, many will do what they can to avoid paying full price for textbooks. The cost can be a barrier for students, particularly for those who are already in debt or come from low-income families.
Some students search for bargains and buy secondhand materials. Others rent from book publishers, many of which lease books to students at discounted prices.
Students such as Reyes play a game of wait-and-see and avoid buying books for as long as possible. Sixty-five percent of college students said they have delayed buying a textbook because it was too expensive and, in some cases, done so even though they were worried the decision would hurt their grade, according to the consumer advocacy group U.S. PIRG.
“When you grow older, you realize, I don’t need the book. I have my notes, I have the lectures, I have the slides and the PowerPoints. I’m good,” Reyes said. He said he doesn’t buy books he feels he will not need, and he once had a professor who asked the class to purchase a textbook Reyes never opened. It was the most expensive textbook he bought that year.
“I wish the professors could be a little bit more honest about how their class is going to be structured,” Reyes said.
The days leading up to the beginning of the semester can be stressful, students said. Some professors do not reveal which books are required until classes start.
“They expect us to then have all of these books immediately,” said Alexes Harris, a GWU senior majoring in creative writing and English. “I don’t think that’s necessarily fair, especially for low-income students.”
Harris said she uses leftover money from grants and scholarships to pay for books. But she’s also used to prowling the library for textbooks, sometimes bending her schedule around the availability of a single book.
The exact toll taken by college textbook costs is in dispute. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that even as tuition has risen, no cost of college life has increased faster than textbooks. The bureau found that book prices rose 88 percent between 2006 and 2016, and the College Board — which administers the SAT exam — reported that students budget more than $1,200 each year for textbooks and other class supplies, including technology.
Student Monitor, a New Jersey research firm, has published a much lower estimate for student textbook costs — about $500 annually — and said student spending has been on the decline.
Three publishers control 80 percent of the U.S. textbook market and have used their share to drive up prices, said Kaitlyn Vitez, who directs U.S. PIRG’s campaign to make higher education more affordable. Two of those companies — Cengage and McGraw-Hill Education — are slated to merge this year, a move that five dozen student and consumer groups said in a letter to the Justice Department would allow the companies “to continue their decades-long pattern of raising prices.”
Arielle Patrick, a spokeswoman for both companies, disputed U.S. PIRG’s estimate of Cengage’s market share because, while Cengage produces digital coursework and electronic textbooks, it does not consider itself a book publisher. She added that as students stray from traditional publishers and turn to other sources for course materials — such as Amazon and Chegg — the company formed by the merger of Cengage and McGraw-Hill would be only one of several options for students.
U.S. PIRG estimates that the proposed company would be worth more than $5 billion, making it the second-largest textbook provider after Pearson, another major publisher.
In an effort to slash prices, Cengage launched a subscription service that officials say has saved more than 2 million students about $125 million — roughly $62.50 a person. McGraw-Hill partners with universities to automatically bill students a flat rate for access to its materials, a measure the company says saves students money. Pearson is “leading the way in bringing down course material prices” through its rental service and other programs, company spokesman Scott Overland said.
Despite these efforts, thousands of students flock to online forums and Facebook groups searching for used copies of classic novels or pricey textbooks. The moderator of one Reddit thread boasts: “I can find you almost any eTextbook that you need” for less than $15.
Iyana Botts, a junior at Howard University, relies on a few tactics to tamp down book costs, such as delaying classes that require expensive textbooks and splitting the cost of a book with her classmates.
“I’ve definitely went in three ways with two other people and we just shared a textbook because it was cheaper for us to do that,” she said. “Textbooks are seen as little things, but the amount of money that they’re costing nowadays is really outlandish.”
Botts also complained about access codes sold by publishers that hide digital textbooks, assignments, study guides and other online content behind a paywall. They can cost as much as traditional textbooks.
“You have to buy the access code to participate in the class,” Botts said. “It’s so easy to get discouraged when it costs too much.”
Michelle Marks, vice president for academic innovation and new ventures at George Mason University, said she has spoken to students who have chosen textbooks over groceries, medical care or traveling to visit family.
“Some students make choices about what classes to take based on the cost of the textbook and course materials. And other students aren’t buying their books at all,” Marks said. “Students actually do drop out of school because they don’t have money to buy their books.”
George Mason and hundreds of campuses throughout the country — including American University and the University of Maryland — are slowly adopting open educational resources, materials that are written by academics for the public domain and available at no cost to students and professors.
Max Paul Friedman, a history professor at American, started using open-source textbooks five years ago. Before that, he had been assigning a textbook that cost about $100.
“For some time, I’d been concerned about the high price of textbooks. All of our students are struggling,” Friedman said. “For generations, textbook publishers have enjoyed captive markets of students who don’t have a choice when it comes to what they have to pay for and who have paid fairly high, if not inflated, prices for books.”
Lawmakers have taken notice, and Congress recently increased funding, from $5 million to $7 million, for a federal program that provides grants to colleges and universities to implement initiatives to reduce textbook costs.
Nearly a quarter of educators who taught introductory courses during the 2017-2018 school year required students to use open-source textbooks, up from 15 percent the year before, according to data from the Babson Survey Research Group.
But because these materials are available online, they can be inaccessible to students who live in areas without reliable Internet access — such as rural Virginia — Marks said.
“Obviously, the hardest-hit are the low-income students, many of whom are the first generation of people in their family to go to college,” Marks said about the lack of access to affordable textbooks. “They don’t typically figure in the cost of textbooks, and it ends up really hurting them.”