Should College Textbooks Be Free? Analyzing the Outcomes

Written by: Kristyn Pilgrim
Updated: 5/21/20

Students typically pay thousands of dollars in tuition alone each semester, often through student loans with accruing interest. On top of higher college costs, the average cost of textbooks has risen about four times faster than inflation over the last 10 years.

A semester’s worth of textbooks costs $1,200 on average, so a reported 65% of students skip buying books, both in print and electronic form.

Although print costs should go down with easier access to electronic textbooks, access codes from publishers reportedly keep college textbook costs high. These access codes expire at the end of the semester, so unlike print books, electronic books cannot be transferred or resold.

The problem of both print and e-books being so expensive has led to calls from students, administrators, professors, and parents for a solution. Everything from providing free college textbooks to lumping the cost of books into tuition has been proposed. 

Why Are College Textbooks So Expensive for Students?

Surveys show that 4 in 10 college courses, most of which are introductory classes required of all undergraduates, lump the access codes into their textbook bundles. While print books are still part of some classes, e-books are becoming more popular because they allow professors and teaching assistants to give students access to workbooks and tests rather than just the textbook itself. If the textbook is unbundled from the other course material, the book itself would cost about a third as much.

Expired access codes mean that students cannot take e-books with them for future reference. While a student may not want an introductory coursebook later, books related to the student’s major could be important sources of reference material in future, higher-level classes.

To lessen problems associated with expense and access, a small number of schools adopted open-access resource texts. This lowers the student’s total educational materials cost to a fraction of what it was. So far, about 6% of schools have adopted this type of program. 

Can College Textbooks Be Totally Free?

The debate about textbook costs has encouraged both colleges and textbook publishers to find ways to offer free books to students, especially undergraduates. There are pros and cons to free books based on where the costs go.

Pros of Free Books

Detractors of textbook publishers’ prices say that this market is a “racket.” Legislation passed in 2008 demanded that publishers release pricing information to professors so universities and colleges would have more say over what their students paid.

In response, publishers released pricing for books separately from other course material. These materials would ultimately be bundled together and cost students hundreds of dollars. The ultimate consumer, the college student, would still have no options when it came to costs.

Critics report that pricing on textbooks does not reflect the actual publishing cost. Instead, publishers have a cornered market, so they charge whatever they want.

A 2007 study reported that open-source textbooks would help students a great deal. A follow-up 2014 study from the United States Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) found that students could save an average of $100 by using open texts, text libraries, and other sources of free access.

Some colleges are producing their own textbooks for undergraduate courses to minimize the cost. Junior faculty are required to contribute a chapter to an overall department textbook, which is then offered as an open e-book to students. Junior faculty may have a lower ranking than tenured professors, but they are still experts in their field. With this model, they would be able to focus their teaching materials each semester or year, enriching their field and their specific college while also helping their students. 

Cons of Free Books

Publishers report that they do have higher-than-expected costs for textbooks compared to literature or nonfiction. While the overall cost of print and electronic books is going down, this is due to who the direct consumer is: an average consumer rather than a student and a professor with specific educational requirements.

Textbook publishers have accreditation standards to meet for their work, so they must invest in professionals who can put the book together. This requires accurate, up-to-date information not just in book form, but also for:

  • Supplementary materials like workbooks and videos
  • Charts and graphs in the book
  • Images that have rights attached to them
  • Study guides

The initial research, drafting, and writing of a textbook is labor-intensive and can take many years. Professors who are leaders in their field are hired to write and assemble the book and any associated materials. Editors then go through drafts until the textbook is complete. Publishing other books also takes professionals years to complete, but there are fewer specific educational requirements for nonfiction and fiction.

Publishers report that they only make money from selling new books. Used textbooks are a huge market, with students reselling used books at the end of the year for a fraction of their cost. The publisher does not receive money from the sale of used books; the university does. Sometimes, students rent books for part of the semester, and the publisher does not receive that money, either.

Some publishers, like Flat World Knowledge, tried free books, with some upcharges for additional materials. However, the experiment reportedly failed, leading to the company changing its policy on free textbooks in 2012. While they still host about 110 free textbooks, the company will not add any more to its collection.

Textbook publishers may go out of business, which could lead to a decline in the quality of textbooks overall. Free textbooks could be monitored for quality by educational institutions, ensuring their students still have access to high-quality materials and sources.

There may be other ways to reduce the overall cost, especially for students, without sacrificing the quality of the books and supplemental materials produced by leading experts. 

How to Save Money on Your College Textbooks Now

Print books are still widely used among students, who then loan their books to friends in need or sell the books back to the school. While they receive a fraction of what they paid, some money back is better than nothing.

More students are using secondary sources online rather than purchasing expensive e-books. They may also opt to rely on information provided during class lectures to make their way through exams and papers.

You can keep textbook costs down by: 

  • Using your school’s library
  • Comparison shopping online
  • Finding an affordable textbook subscription service
  • Sharing print books

The cost of your textbooks is considered an educational expense, so your financial aid (including student loans) should help to cover the expense. Although textbooks are expensive, they are an important part of your education. Both federal and private student loans can help you manage this cost.