A Cover to Cover Solution


College textbook prices have skyrocketed in recent years, threatening the affordability and accessibility of higher education in America.  The average student spends $900 on textbooks annually, which can be the tipping point between affording a degree and dropping out because of cost.  As prices continue to rise, the need for solutions is increasingly urgent.

Recent developments have brought signs of relief from runaway costs.  In July of this year, provisions from the Higher Education Opportunity Act took effect, requiring publishers to disclose textbook prices to professors during the marketing process.  Increased awareness of cost will create an atmosphere where lower-cost options can gain traction.  Concurrently, several potential solutions have evolved in the textbooks marketplace.

  • Cost-reducing options for traditional textbooks:  As of this fall, more than 1,500 colleges offer books for rent, and more than 7,000 common titles are available as e-books.  New e-reading devices like Apple’s iPad and Amazon’s Kindle offer a convenient, portable way for students to read and store digital books.
  • Alternate models: Open textbooks are offered online under an open-source license that allows free digital access, low-cost print options and customization by instructors.  More than 1,000 professors are using open textbooks this fall, and dozens of high-quality books are already available.

The Student PIRGs conducted this study to evaluate the long-term potential of these new options as solutions to the high cost of textbooks.

Report Findings

During the spring and summer of 2010, the Student PIRGs conducted a survey of 1,428 students from 10 campuses and an analysis of textbook prices for 10 common college subjects.  Our findings are as follows.   

1. Textbook affordability solutions must satisfy a wide range of student preferences.

The survey results show that student preferences vary widely.  Therefore, the solution must offer a multitude of affordable options to extend savings to all students.

  • Students are split between print and digital: 75% of the students surveyed said print was their preferred format; 25% chose digital.  This finding mirrors a survey we conducted in 2008, which suggests that student attitudes have not changed significantly.
  • A combination of print and digital may be best for some students: 47% of the students said they would be comfortable using at least one of the digital textbook formats.
  • To rent or to buy?  Most students would choose both: 93% of the students would rent at least some of their textbooks, but only 34% would rent all of them.

2. Traditional cost-reducing options have limited potential because they only appeal to a subset of students.

We used the student survey and textbook price data to estimate how much rentals, e-books and e-readers could reduce the average amount students spend on textbooks per year ($900).  All three were less expensive than buying print textbooks, but the savings are limited because the options do not appeal to all students.

  • Rentals are 61% less than new print textbooks on average and could reduce the average amount spent per year by 33% to $602.
  • E-textbooks are 52% less than new print books  on average and could reduce the average amount spent per year by 8% to $830.
  • E-reader textbooks are 39% less than new print books on average and could reduce the average amount spent per year by 1.4% to $888.
  • All three options combined could reduce the average amount spent per year by 34% to $598.

3. Open textbooks can reduce costs for all students and have the potential for long-term sustainability.

Open textbooks come in a range of affordable formats that accommodates all preferences, and thereby extends the savings to all students.   Putting open textbooks to the same test as the traditional cost-reducing options, we found that the overall results would be dramatic.

  • Open textbooks could reduce the average amount spent per year by 80% to $184.

Open textbooks a strong potential for savings, but their success will depend on the development of sustainable publishing models.  Our study found that students are willing to purchase print copies and other optional items, even though the full text of open textbooks is free online.   The sale of such products could serve as the foundation of innovative business models for publishers.


This study demonstrates that the solution to textbook affordability must both reduce costs and address the diversity of student preferences.  The potential impact of rentals, e-textbooks and e-readers is limited because they only match the preferences of a subset of students.  While such options can help reduce costs in the short term, they cannot be a long-term solution.  Open textbooks can reduce costs substantially and can accommodate the full spectrum of students.  Open textbooks are a comprehensive solution with a variety of affordable formats and purchasing options. 

We therefore conclude that the next step toward textbook affordability is to promote the creation and adoption of open textbooks.  Now that the federal price disclosure law has made cost integral to the textbook marketing and selection process, promoting open textbooks can create pressure for publishers to lower their prices.

  • Publishers should develop new models that can produce high quality books without imposing excessive costs on students.  The emergence of open textbook publishers such as Flat World Knowledge proves this is possible.
  • Faculty should seek, consider and adopt open textbooks and other affordable alternatives whenever possible.
  • Colleges and governments should invest in the creation of more open textbooks and the innovation of sustainable models.
  • Students should take action against high costs by spreading the word about open textbooks to their faculty, campuses and communities.

Released September 2010

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