While most parents diligently pony up the majority of funds to purchase all of the prescribed textbooks on a student's book list, the reality is that less than two-thirds (65%) of college students buy all of the textbooks assigned by their professors. Nearly a third (32%) pick and choose what to buy, and a small but growing number prefer to rent their textbooks from startups such as Chegg and CourseSmart.
Professors provide the primary motivation for what they do and don't buy (a factor cited by 67% of collegians); however, factors such as the degree to which they expect the book to be used (63%) and the price of the book or material (51%) also determine whether a student decides to plunk down an average of $57 for a textbook.
The hesitancy to buy all prescribed textbooks is well founded. At the end of the spring term, we asked whether students actually used all of the textbooks that they had bought. Merely a quarter (25%) used all of the textbooks they had purchased at the start of the spring 2009 semester, while another two out of five (41%) used most of them. Fewer than one out of three (31%) wound up using merely some of the textbooks that they purchased.
As more and more attention is focused on the high and growing cost of college education, textbooks have become a vigorous topic of debate. Last year, members of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce asked the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance to conduct a study on the rising cost of textbooks and recommend ways to bring those costs under control.
The vast majority of college students (92%) agree with the statement, "Textbooks are too expensive." Conversely, little more than one in ten (12%) agrees with the statement "Textbooks represent good value for money."
While students agree with statements like, "Textbooks are relevant to the courses I take" (67% agree / 9% disagree) and "Textbooks are essential for academic success" (49% / 28%), grievances to which students relate include statements such as, "Textbooks are cumbersome and difficult to carry" (69% / 13%), "Textbooks are bloated with unnecessary content' (64% / 19%), "Textbook enhancements (CDs / Web sites) are unnecessary" (45% / 29%), "The chapters within textbooks are too long" (48% / 17%) and "Textbooks are daunting and difficult to read" (40% / 33%). Sentiment with the statement "I don't need to read the textbook in order to get an A" was balanced between the 36% that agreed and the 34% that disagreed. Ouch!
Electronic textbooks really haven't found much of a foothold, with fewer than 7% of students having ever purchased a textbook in electronic format. This lack of adoption has much to do with digital rights management, limiting the comfort level that publishers feel in releasing textbooks in this format. Gen Y has little sympathy for the creators and owners of digital content, feeling that once it has been digitized, it's fair to share.
As was the case with music, the solution to the textbook problem may be device-centric. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Amazon's pilot to bring textbooks to the Kindle DX at seven campuses this fall and McGraw-Hill Education's plans to bring 100 college textbooks to the Kindle and Kindle DX platform bring solutions to the price and weight of what's in students' backpacks. Meanwhile, CourseSmart has brought more than 7,000 titles to Apple's iPod Touch and iPhone platforms.
As a new school year begins, we're looking forward to measuring the results of these bold new approaches.