GAO Report Finds Textbook Prices Continue To Skyrocket

For Immediate Release

WASHINGTON (June 6, 2013) – College textbook prices increased three times the rate of inflation over the last decade according to a new report by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO).  Recent changes to federal law provide some relief to students, but more must be done to curb textbook costs permanently, it finds.

Textbook costs remain a significant fixture in the college affordability debate.  According to the College Board, the average four-year public college student spends $1,200 per year on books and supplies.  Textbooks for introductory subjects frequently cost over $200 a piece.

The GAO report, released this afternoon, was commissioned by the U.S. Congress to evaluate provisions within the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HEOA) to increase textbook price transparency and purchasing options. 

Overall, the report finds that both colleges and publishers appear to be following the law’s requirements.  Efforts by colleges to disclose textbook prices during course registration were an overall success, helping students take advantage of cost-saving options like used books and renting.  However, efforts by publishers to disclose cost information to faculty have not impacted prices.  New textbook prices rose 82% between 2002 and 2012 according to the report, an average of 6% per year and approximately three times the rate of inflation.

“The findings of this report are bittersweet,” said Nicole Allen, Affordable Textbooks Advocate for the Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs).  “On one hand, we are thrilled that price transparency has helped students gain much-needed relief through cost saving alternatives.  On the other, we are disappointed that the publishing industry continues to drive prices skyward with their same old practices.”

The GAO first investigated the topic of college textbooks in 2005, confirming earlier research by the Student PIRGs that found publishing industry practices were the main factor driving up prices.  This report predicted that prices would continue to rise because the dynamics of the textbook market give students little power to refuse higher prices.  The transparency provisions in HEOA were designed to address this dynamic by ensuring students and faculty could make informed decisions.

Today’s report concludes that while these provisions were generally beneficial to students, price transparency alone is not enough to fully solve the problem in current market conditions.

“The takeaway is that we have more work to do,” said Allen. “Price transparency was a good first step, and the next step is to make sure that faculty and students have more affordable options to choose from.”

The report mentions several developments in the marketplace that could provide alternatives, including the trend toward digital and the emerging “open source” model.  The Student PIRGs have long hailed open source textbooks and the broader Open Educational Resources movement as the ideal alternative.  Open Educational Resources are released online under a license allowing the material to be freely accessed, shared and adapted.

Several states have invested in open source textbooks as a cost-saving measure, including California, which is developing open textbooks for 50 large courses, and Washington, which saved community college students $5.5 million through a library of open course materials.  OpenStax College, a project out of Rice University, is developing 25 open textbooks.

“The rate of textbook price increases is outrageous and unsustainable. It’s time to renew calls for investment and support for alternative publishing models like Open Educational Resources, which can make textbooks affordable for all students,” concluded Allen.

Contact: Nicole Allen, (401) 484-8104, [email protected]


About the Student PIRGs

The Student Public Interest Research Groups is a national network of non-profit, non-partisan student advocacy groups that work on public interest issues pertaining to the environment, consumer protection and government reform.