Report: Consumer Protection

Fixing the Broken Textbook Market

How Students Respond to High Textbook Costs and Demand Alternatives
Released by: Ohio PIRG Education Fund

Executive Summary

The cost of college textbooks has skyrocketed in recent years. For students and families already struggling to afford high tuition and fees, an additional $1200 per year on books and supplies can be the breaking point.

As publishers keep costs high by pumping out new editions and selling books bundled with software, the need for more affordable alternatives is increasingly urgent.

In recent years, some steps have been taken to provide relief from runaway costs. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 requires publishers to disclose textbook prices to professors during the marketing process. At the same time, marketplace alternatives to expensive textbooks have gained traction.

§ Short-term cost-reducing options: Rental programs, e-textbooks, and used book markets have emerged as more consumer-friendly options to new books. According to the National Association of College Stores, more than 3,000 schools offer rental programs, up from 300 in 2009.

§ Long-term alternative models: Open-source textbooks – which are free online and affordable in print – are gaining significant traction as an innovative replacement for published textbooks. More than 2,500 professors have agreed to adopt open-source textbooks in their classrooms. Some campuses have also created their own campus-wide pilot programs to encourage the use and development of open textbooks.

The Student PIRGs conducted this student survey to evaluate the impact of high textbook costs on students and explore the potential of these cost-saving options as solutions to the high cost of textbooks.

During the fall of 2013, the Student PIRGs conducted a survey of 2,039 students from more than 150 different campuses. Here are the major findings:

1.    The high cost of textbooks may be undermining a student’s education.

Of the students surveyed, 65% admitted to not purchasing a textbook because it was too expensive. At the same time, 94% of respondents who had skipped buying a textbook felt that skipping the book would hurt their grades in the course.

2.    High textbook costs play a role in student’s academic decisions.

Nearly half of all students said that the cost of textbooks impacted which classes and/or how many classes they took.

3.    Students are ready for alternative textbooks in their classes.

82% of students responded that they would do significantly better in a course if the textbook was free online and buying a hard copy was optional. Since that’s exactly how open textbooks work, they represent the ideal solution.


This survey demonstrates that rampant textbook costs are not only hurting already over-burdened student wallets but undermining their education as well.

If we are to reduce barriers to learning and ensure that students are able to make academic decisions based solely on what is necessary for their degree attainment and job preparation, affordable options must be introduced to the market. Students overwhelmingly responded in support of an alternative model with free online textbooks and optional hard copies.

Open textbooks fit this description and offer the potential for incredible student savings.


- Students should advocate for open textbook use in their classrooms. See our toolkit for organizing on campus.

- Faculty should consider adopting open textbooks in their classrooms. Check the Open Textbook Library to see if there’s a book available in your classroom.

- Campus administrators should consider creating an open textbook pilot program on their campus. See the University System of Maryland’s MOST Initiative as a sample.

- State and federal legislatures should invest in the creation and development of more open textbooks. See Washington states’ Open Course Library as and example.

- Publishers should develop new models that can produce high quality books without imposing excessive costs on students. 

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