A look at my Amazon order history shows that when I was an incoming freshman at Point Park University, in 2014, my family and I spent $254.84 on textbooks. I distinctly remember how proud I was, at the time, of how low I was able to get the price.
Not long into my first semester, a variety of factors made me realize I didn’t need to spend even half of that.
The rising cost of textbooks and the staggering amounts of money students and their families spend on them every year remains a pertinent issue, but there are ways of reducing that burden.
According to the 2016 report Covering the Cost, between 2006 and 2016, textbook costs rose 73 percent, or about four times the rate of inflation. The report, released by the nonprofit Student Public Interest Research Groups, was filled with data concerning the cost of college textbooks, how students pay for them, and the best solutions to pursue.
“The college-textbook industry is a multibillion-dollar market every year,” report co-author Ethan Senack said in a phone interview. “And when you place it in the context of broader education-funding challenges, [it] can be a real barrier to students who are already struggling to pay for college.”
A core issue, Senack argues, is the “disassociation between the person who actually pays for the book and who chooses the product.” What he means is that the textbook publishers convince college faculty to assign a book, but then it’s students who must fork over the cash for something they never chose in the first place.
“I think that’s why you see so many students choose to not purchase textbooks, or share with a friend, or rent from the library — to opt out of that system.” said Senack, currently the outreach and policy manager for Creative Commons USA, and formerly a higher-education advocate at US PIRG, an advocacy group focusing on issues like money in politics and health care.
Robert Bertha, Point Park University’s United Student Government president, attended both the Community College of Allegheny County and the University of Pittsburgh Johnstown before coming to Point Park. One thing he’s learned since he was an incoming freshman is that sometimes you really don’t need to purchase the textbook the professor assigns.
“After the first week, you can get a feel,” he said in a phone interview, adding he’s usually been able to spend under $100 each semester on textbooks.
But while Bertha’s expenditure is substantially below average, shopping around for lower prices is a growing trend.
Students on average spent $579 on required course materials during the 2016-17 academic year, which is actually down $23 from the year before, and down $122 from 2007-’08, according to a report from the National Association of College Stores. “They’re not buying less, they’re shopping smarter,” the report says.
University book stores do not always offer the lowest prices, but Point Park, Carlow University, Robert Morris University and La Roche College’s bookstores all offer price-matching. The University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University do not, but do display competing prices from other retailers, like Amazon.
There are also more ambitious and macro ideas on cutting costs, like open textbooks, something Senack advocates. Open textbooks have an open copyright and can therefore be distributed with little to no costs associated, bypassing the issue of inflated textbook prices.
“[Publishers] can raise prices as much as they want, for as long as they want,” Senack says. “And they’ve done so.”