When college and university students consider how they will pay for their education they often have limited options: student loans, scholarships, financial aid, and work. With the rising cost of college and university tuition, these financial decisions weigh heavily on the minds of students. However, the financial stress of higher education can extend beyond tuition and housing. Students now need to confront the rising cost of textbooks. Textbooks, which may determine academic success in a course, are becoming increasingly expensive, ultimately creating an additional economic barrier to education.
The cost of textbooks affects students in every field of study. A curriculum that relies on literature, like James Madison College’s MC112 course, may rely on cheaper books. However, buying the four books needed in this class new would cost a student over $107. Even for classes with only one textbook, costs remain high. The textbook used in Statistics 200, for example, costs $132. These costs, compounded over multiple semesters, will have the average student spending $1,207 on course materials annually.
If students do not have necessary course materials, they risk underperforming. In a course like James Madison College’s MC 112, the readings are essential to student success. Professors expand and develop course readings in lecture, include content from readings in exams, and use the material as a way to expand students’ analytical skills. A student in Statistics 200 can also further their understanding of course material with their textbook. The texts required are often vital to a student’s understanding, allowing them to dive further into class content, while practice problems help students determine if they can put theory into practice.
Despite the importance of textbooks to students, costs continue to rise. According to an NBC review of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of textbooks increased by 1041% from 1977 to 2015. This statistic takes inflation into account, and shows how trends in textbook costs now mirror skyrocketing tuition costs. Statistics like these reveal the true extent of the crisis in higher education, as the costs of even basic course materials are rising at an unprecedented rate.
To combat this problem, politicians at the state and federal level are taking action to assist students. At the federal level, the Affordable College Textbook Act has emerged, sponsored by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). This legislation tries to expand access to “open textbooks,” which offer an alternative to physical textbooks. Open textbooks are free to access and give professors the flexibility that traditional course material offers. In theory, this legislation would allow professors to pick the same quality material for their course and lower the financial cost to students. Because open textbooks are digital, they are easily accessible from an array of electronic devices. The bill addresses textbooks affordability at multiple levels, as it would also provide grants to colleges and universities to develop and use open textbooks and requires publishers to provide reports that describe how their organization is maximizing student savings. Though it was introduced in 2015, this legislation never left committee. Its failure is of no help to students who need assistance to overcome financial barriers, but conveys some federal support for intervention on behalf of students at American colleges and universities.
Further action is being taken at the state level. Michigan House Bill 5949, which did not go beyond introduction, would have allowed students to claim tax credits when purchasing textbooks for public and higher education institutions. House Bill 4028, introduced and passed in 2017, would exempt college textbooks from sales tax for full and part time students attending public or private universities and colleges. Both attempt to alleviate financial pressure through tax exemptions. Legislation like House Bill 4028 would have a smaller economic impact on students than federal attempts like the Textbook Affordability Act and would not provide longer term solutions. This legislation only attempts to address the negative effects of rising textbooks costs rather than attempting more extensive reform by looking at the causes of this issue. Despite the limited scope of this legislation, it is a positive step. It begins to address a pressing issue for Michigan students and continues the dialogue surrounding textbook affordability.
Students have a right to an affordable education but face serious financial barriers while pursuing it. The graduating class of 2016 has, on average, $37,173 in student loan debt. Affordable education is necessary to ensure that students, regardless of socioeconomic status, have equal access to education. Limiting access to education is not only harmful for individual students, but perpetuates economic disadvantage. While the rising cost of tuition remains the overriding issue in higher education, the cost of textbooks create an additional obstacle for economically disadvantaged students.