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How the buying of college textbooks has changed over the past 50 years

NewsCampus NewsHow the buying of college textbooks has changed over the past 50 years

Staff Reporter

This article was updated on Oct. 23, 2022.

Though textbook prices have been on the decline for the past decade, since the 1970s, college textbook prices have increased more than 1,000%. In this time, the landscape of buying and selling college textbooks has significantly changed with publishing company monopolies eliminating competition and professors choosing to assign higher valued textbooks.

The four major publishing companies for college textbooks are Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Cengage and Wiley. According to a 2016 Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) report, these companies corner more than 80% of the textbook industry market. These textbooks publishers often avoid publishing books in subject areas where other companies have found success, thus limiting the options the professor has in assigning textbooks to the students. 

“Just college itself is already pretty costly,” freshman Richard Tran said. “And if you’re not able to get scholarships or anything, it’s just adding on more price tags to having to already attend college.”

Publishers tend to create new editions of textbooks every three to four years. According to Education Data Initiative, on average, with each new edition of a textbook, the price increases by 12%. Oftentimes, in these new editions of textbooks, new illustrations are added in and the practice exercises are rearranged, but the quality of the learning remains unchanged.

“Textbooks from last year and this year are probably aren’t even that different,” freshman Iyanna Register said. “It just has like one page more.”

The price of textbooks not only does damage to students’ wallets but also to their educational success, disproportionately affecting people of color. In a study from California State University Channel Islands, approximately 12% of Latinx students failed a class because they did not have access to the textbook compared to just 5% for caucasian students.

“I feel like it’s a really big disadvantage to people who are from low income families because I am from a low income family and as it is now, college is already super expensive, especially if you’re paying for it on your own without outside help,” Register said.

To increase equity, the university and many other universities and colleges offer inclusive access textbooks. The price of inclusive access textbooks are automatically added to a student’s tuition and fees, ensuring the student will have access to the textbook from the first day of class.

Additionally, textbook publishing company Cengage recently implemented a subscription service for its textbooks. Students have the option to pay $179.99 per year to gain full access to every Cengage digital textbook they need.

Amazon and other third party sellers sometimes have the textbook for a cheaper price than what is being offered at the college bookstore. Renting textbooks as opposed to buying them new can also lessen the cost of textbooks. In lucky circumstances, students may also find free PDF versions of the textbook online, eliminating the cost entirely.

“I definitely want to rent them because I’m not going to keep them,” Tran said. “Hopefully some renting system where I can keep them for a little bit and then give them back.”

Many professors at University of Georgia have opted to use the open education resource (OER) website, OpenStax, which offers multiple free online textbooks for higher education. OpenStax textbooks are being used in 60% of colleges and universities across the country and more than 100 countries worldwide.

“Accessibility is so important, especially for people who can’t afford textbooks or who have to take out loans for textbooks,” Register said.




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