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Why Are College Textbooks So Expensive? This Is the Real Reason

why are college textbooks so expensive

Senior year of high school invokes awe and anxiety. Sure the end is near for living as a dependent. But what happens when you move out and start life as a young adult in school?

Many prospective college kids and their parents worry about financing the next four years of education.

When tallying up expenses, the cost of living, housing, and tuition are the main topics of stress. Unfortunately, most freshman will wonder what all college students have thought, “why are college textbooks so expensive?”

Sure there appear to be some changes underway. During the 2018-2019 school year, students spent an estimated $415 on “nine required course materials,” according to the National Association of College Stores. Although this number shows a decrease from the previous year, this is still a large amount of money. 

If the cost of textbooks makes you a little grumpy, that’s okay. We’re about to discuss why are textbooks so expensive and what you can do to save some cash.

Why Are College Textbooks So Expensive?

So why are college textbooks so expensive? Well, the short answer is because of the publishing companies. Sure the five publishing companies of Pearson, Cengage, McGraw-Hill, Macmillan, and Wiley control a large percent of the college textbook industry. But other contributing factors cause the rise of textbooks.

1. The Content

When it comes to making course materials, it takes a large staff of workers to achieve this goal. Research for the content must get done. Depending on the subject course materials include charts, graphs, illustrations, pictures, questions, assignments. 

The salary to pay the people conducting the research and writing the manuscript are factors. The graphic designers, photographers, and curriculum writers must get paid too. 

The entire process of developing and producing a textbook could take three to five years. Some scientific course books take over ten years to finish according to U.S. News.

But once a textbook is complete and ready for distribution, the money earned through book sales gets divided and disbursed. According to a 2008 breakdown of textbook money, “15.4 cents of every dollar” is for marketing, “11.7 cents” goes to the authors, “32.2 cents” covers the paper, printing, publishing company employees, according to the NACS.

While it would be beneficial to track where the textbook money goes now, the NACS no longer receives information from the publishers.

2. New Editions

When book production gets examined, it’s easy to understand why textbooks are expensive. The creation of new editions occurring every two to three years instead of every five, the publishers are to blame.

The new editions of books make it difficult for students to sell their copy because a professor may need to use a new version for the upcoming school year. Some professors do not mind if students use an older edition. But if a new edition with access codes becomes required reading this creates an issue. 

The access codes allow students to use materials such as lessons, homework assignments, or videos. While it sounds good in theory buying a new book with access codes that expire at the end of the school year, it could end up wasting money if the textbook is barely used.

Sadly many students forgo purchasing an expensive textbook even if it decreases their course grade. 

Is Inclusive Access More Affordable?

Inclusive access is a recent trend in the course material market. To lower costs for students, the inclusive access fee would get included in the course materials fee for their college or university. Publishers like this idea of students buying their books in bulk through their course materials fee because it almost guarantees a sale.

If someone doesn’t want to participate in the program, there is an opt-out. But many students take part because they have access to all their needed materials as soon as enrollment is complete.

The biggest drawback to the inclusive access is it covers digital books and not traditional books. The access could expire at the end of the school year, but extended access to the materials is available by paying a fee. Students are unable to sell the books back to the bookstore or to another student, which denies them the chance to make back some of the money spent.

Are Open-Source Textbooks the Future?

Open-source textbooks offer course material content online and in print for a lower cost than traditional course books, according to the Public Interest Research Groups (PRIG). The benefits do not stop there. Open-source textbooks are customizable for instructors. 

Since the material is available in digital and print, access to the content is flexible. Plus the open-source textbooks are high-quality because experts in their field write them.

Renting Vs. Buying

If your professor decides to use traditionally published textbooks, then deciding to rent or buy can be challenging. Renting offers lower prices. Buying books allows students to keep the book for future reference. 

Depending on the required course material using both methods may be cheaper. If there’s a book you think may be of use to you again, then buying it, even used, could be helpful. But if you have no desire to review the course material after concluding the class renting is a better option

Conduct Research Before Spending

The answer to why are college textbooks so expensive is complicated, but there are options. If you are a student or plan to return to school, research before spending your money. 

If you want to find the best textbook deals, please use our used textbook price comparison.

About the Author

Christopher Manns

I was born in the UK, grew up in Canada and have lived in the USA since the 90s. I love my family, water sports, ice hockey, skiing and soccer. When I'm not helping people save money on textbooks, I'm travelling with my wonderful family and playing sports.