Industry Notes: AAP Flags Declining US Student Spending on Textbooks

In News by Porter Anderson

Two studies from campus research programs indicate that ‘students are taking full advantage of the new, cost-effective options’ offered by education publishers.

Image – iStockphoto: Mangpor 2004

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
Reports Cite 35- and 29-Percent Drops

In a statement issued late Wednesday (September 11), the Association of American Publishers reports that average student spending on college textbooks and course materials in the United States has steadily declined in recent years.

This, according to studies by Student Watch, offering campus research from the National Association of College Stores, and Student Monitor, an independent research firm.

Student Watch reports a drop of 35 percent over the past five years and Student Monitor indicates a 29-percent decline over the same time period.

Kelly Denson

In prepared statement from Kelly Denson, AAP’s senior director for education policy and programs, we read, “When it comes to acquiring course materials, students have more choice and more affordable alternatives than ever, including rental options for both print and digital materials, loose-leaf versions and creative new distribution models such as inclusive access and subscription services.

“The statistics make it clear that students are taking full advantage of the new, cost-effective options that publishers have made available, which has led to a significant decline in student spending.”

AAP breaks out highlights for the news media from each report.

From Student Monitor

Image: Student Watch ‘Attitudes & Behaviors toward Course Materials 2018-2019’

Student Monitor’s “Lifestyle & Media” report found that student spending on course materials went from an average of US$691 for the 2014 to 2015 academic year to $492 for the 2018-2019 academic year.

In the most recent semester for which data is available, the report indicated that average spending on course materials went from $281 for spring of 2018, to $239 in spring of 2019, a decline of 15 percent.

The Student Monitor findings are the result of hour-long, one-on-one campus interviews conducted among four-year, full-time undergraduates attending 93 representative colleges and universities.

From Student Watch

The most recent Student Watch survey indicates that course material spending dropped by an average of $45, or seven percent, every year between the 2013 to 2014 and 2018 to 2019 school years, going from $638 (2014 to 2015) to $415 (2018to2019).

The survey involved more than 20,000 students across 42 institutions. Student Watch is funded by the National Association of College Stores (NACS) Foundation.

Discussion: Options in the Student Marketplace

In the AAP report, the staff writes, “Education publishers have long acknowledged that students struggle with overall college expenses.”

Because there’s no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ solution for college course materials, the AAP notes, education companies are addressing affordability by launching new initiatives such as “inclusive Access,” which provide students with materials on the first day of class—often at a reduced cost—because they’re purchased in volume.

“Other options like subscription models provide unlimited access to a range of textbooks, open course materials, online homework access codes and study guides all for one price,” the AAP says.

Image: Student Watch ‘Attitudes & Behaviors toward Course Materials 2018-2019’

This is the option taken by Cengage Learning, for example, in rolling out its Cengage Unlimited subscription, and in that case, the change to the subscription model has prompted criticism and court action from some authors contracted to write course materials.

Students continue to embrace a wide range of options for acquiring their course materials.

According to the Student Monitor report, the AAP points out, the $239 in average student spending during the spring 2019 semester included:

  • $102 for new, printed textbooks
  • $59 for used, printed textbooks
  • $47 for rented, printed textbooks
  • $20 for digital textbooks for unlimited use
  • $11 for digital textbooks for limited-time use

Student Watch reports that as of 2019, about one in four students (26 percent) preferred a strictly print textbook, down 21 percent from its highest point in fall 2016, but down only 6 percent from fall 2012 when the question was first asked.

Twenty-one percent of students surveyed said they preferred print with a digital component, which includes print books with online access or support, making the category the second most popular option.

More from Publishing Perspectives on educational publishing is here, and more from us on the Association of American Publishers is here. More of our Industry Notes series is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.