Will the Future Of College Textbooks Be Easier on the Wallet?

The subheading of the latest education-related story on USA Today will be welcome news to many a freshman. According to David Schick and Mary Beth Marklein, there are signs that one of the biggest drains on the students’ budgets – textbooks – could be on their way out.

But not quite yet. Today, college students are still paying more for their texts every year, but for the first time there are promising indicators that this won’t always be the case. And like many changes that threatened to upend the status quo in higher education happening over the past 15 years, this one will owe a lot to the internet.

The cost of academic materials rose at a steady pace of 6% a year, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office. In previous years, students had no choice but to pay. Now, according to the Book Industry Study Group study published in the spring of 2013, nearly 35% of those polled reported bypassing pricy college bookstores and downloading the course material off the internet illegally. That is a 14 point increase from only 3 years ago.

Publishers have been able to drive up textbook prices because students “have to buy whatever textbook they’ve been assigned,” says Nicole Allen, a program director for the Scholarly Publishing Academic Resources Coalition, an alliance of academic libraries.

Allen, a longtime advocate for students, sees signs of “a turning point,” in part because more teachers are seeking cheaper alternatives.

About one in four first-year students and one in three seniors frequently did not purchase required academic materials because of cost, says a 2012 study by the non-profit National Survey of Student Engagement.

Even students who don’t want to break the law now have more options. For a generation reared to be comfortable being surrounded by screens, digital books, which can cost up to 40% less than traditional printed books, offer a tempting alternative.

Still, it’s too early to claim victory over traditional college publishing business model. According to a recent story on The Daily Beast, while the demand for digital texts is growing, paper and ink versions still dominate the campuses.

Some university systems are not content to wait, however. The California State University launched a new program last year which aims to make it easier for students to get discounts on digital books.

The university launched Rent Digital last year to offer students the option to save 60% or more compared to purchasing a new print textbook. The university has agreements with Cengage Learning, CourseSmart, Follett, Barnes & Noble, Schlager Milestone Documents and W.W. Norton to allow CSU students access to thousands of popular e-textbooks at discounted prices.