A Cavalier Daily review of average costs per University class shows a stark disparity between courses, affecting undergraduate students in all departments.
The University’s textbook costs
At the University, class textbook costs range from $12 to hundreds of dollars. Most courses average over $100 in textbook costs.
Within the College of Arts and Sciences, the Economics department has the highest average cost of required textbooks per class at $181, closely followed by the Psychology department at $177. The data is based on prices found through the University Bookstore’s textbook database of courses taught in the fall 2015 semester.
The average cost of a course in the Commerce School’s undergraduate department is $112. Similarly, a class in the Batten School’s undergraduate department costs an average $117.
The most expensive book within the reviewed undergraduate departments in the College of Arts and Sciences is the “History of The American Economy” at $339, assigned in both History and Economics departments. Of the reviewed schools, the Commerce school has the next most expensive textbook: “Auditing and Assurance Services,” which costs $309.
This data includes the prices of all required textbooks sold through the University Bookstore for courses taught in the fall 2015 semester. If the student is given the option between two of the same textbooks — an electronic book and a paper book — the cost of the more expensive book was used in order to show the full extent of possible costs per class.
Not all courses within each department list textbooks through the University Bookstore. The departments selected represent the most popular undergraduate departments within each school — the top five from the College, top three from the Engineering School and one from each other school.
The five most popular departments within the College were calculated from the five departments with the most majors in 2013, while the top three from the Engineering School and the top department from the Curry School were determined from departments that had the highest amount of majors as of the fall 2015 semester.
The market for textbooks
College textbook prices have increased by 82 percent over the past decade, according to a report released by U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a broad-based public policy advocacy group.
“According to the College Board, the average undergraduate student should budget between $1,200 and $1,300 for textbooks and supplies each year,” the report reads.
For many college students, who on average graduate with debt of over $28,000, the national trend of increasing textbook prices has proved to be quite a burden.
College textbook prices have increased 3.2 times the rate inflation in the past decade, said Ethan Senack, the report’s author.
“It’s not just an expensive textbook anymore — it is a serious barrier for students and families that are already struggling to afford a college education,” he said.
The textbook publishing industry operates within what economists call a “broken market.” This means the market lacks the two factors that control prices — market competition and consumer choice.
"It’s not just an expensive textbook anymore — it is a
serious barrier for students and families that are already
struggling to afford a college education,” Senack said.
A small number of publishers control a majority of the market, diminishing market competition. Since students must defer to professors’ choice in textbooks, there is no consumer choice.
“When you eliminate consumer choice and market competition, that means publishers can raise prices year after year without fear or market kickback, and they’ve done so every year for more than 30 years,” Senack said.
There have been a number of studies that show many students are not buying their textbooks because of high costs, said Nicole Allen, a program director at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition.
“Professors are assigning these books, because they believe it’s going to help students to learn,” she said. “But if students can’t buy books, they can’t succeed in the class.”
Hidden costs within departments
Aside from required textbooks, many students are required to purchase other class equipment such as computer software, service subscriptions, art supplies and iClickers. While not all of these costs are represented in The Cavalier Daily’s review, such costs still impact students’ budgets.
Undergraduate students in the Nursing School, for example, are required to purchase preparation software for the National Council Licensure Examination. The software costs $150 per semester, and students must pass the exam to receive their B.S.N. degrees.
However, some textbooks required for undergraduate Nursing courses are not as expensive as they are in other schools, fourth-year Nursing student Jane Muir said.
“[The costs of our textbooks] aren’t really a big deal because everyone just passes their textbooks on to the person below them, and the price is fairly low,” she said.
Nursing students are also more likely to get their money’s worth with textbook purchases, since many students continue to utilize the books during their career.
“I think that they are pretty fair in price considering how much we will use in the long term,” Muir said. “We use them now fairly regularly, and then in our professional careers, we will continue to consult them.”
Undergraduate Commerce students, on the other hand, are provided necessary software such as video and Mathematica subscriptions, but are required to purchases books specialized for Integrated Core Experience classes — case intensive classes focused on different companies, strategies and practices.
“You are a little bit limited in what you can buy because… there are a lot of case studies which the professors change around a lot,” third-year Commerce student Caroline Weakland said. “You really can’t get used books like you can for other classes.”
"You take the book, you write in it, you ink
it up, you use it all the time," Weakland said.
Like Nursing students, Commerce students make extensive use of the textbooks, mitigating the steep price tags, Weakland said.
“You take the book, you write in it, you ink it up, you use it all the time,” she said. “You really need [the book] to do well in the class, and at the same time you learn a lot, so it’s a tradeoff. You know, take the one [price] hit, and then you’re fine.”
Trends toward alternative solutions
Despite operating within an $8.8 billion industry, the textbook publishing industry’s business model is not sustainable, Senack said, because it encourages more students to opt out of purchasing authorized textbooks.
“It’s time for the publisher’s business model to change and offer a consumer-friendly alternative,” he said.
Senack and U.S. PIRG currently are advocating for universities to switch to using open textbooks, which are free and available to the public online, or available in print for $20 to $40.
“We’re working to encourage schools to create an atmosphere where faculty can transition away from using regular textbooks to using open textbooks,” Senack said. “There’s over 170 open textbooks available today. If we replace traditional textbooks in [about] 17 courses with their [online] alternatives, we can save students over $1 billion a year.”
In addition to using open textbooks, there are a number of alternatives for students to minimize the burden of cost, Allen said, including buying used books or e-books or renting.
"It's time for the publisher's business model to change
and offer a consumer-friendly alternative," Senack said.
Assoc. Economics Prof. Ariell Reshef offers his students the option of buying older editions of the textbook for his class.
“Publishers have lots of tricks for keeping prices high,” he said. “Students usually just cough up the money. I ask my students to try to get the older editions if they can.”
In addition to buying older textbook editions, students have also turned to reselling textbooks to other students, through platforms such as Facebook or CampusWise, a textbook service which allows students to buy and sell textbooks from one another directly and make payments online.
Max Hall and Austin Jones, rising juniors at Old Dominion University, will launch CampusWise at the University this fall to facilitate the resale of college textbooks.
“I founded CampusWise simply because I was tired of spending way too much money to buy from the bookstore [or] searching the classes Facebook pages and online textbook sites to see if I could find the best deal,” Hall said.
Since having launched the service at ODU in January, Hall said he and Jones had noticed many students searching for a better ways to buy textbooks and generally listing their books at a reasonable prices.
“One of the books that was bought by a U.Va. student on CampusWise this fall was ‘Multivariable Calculus.’ It sold on CampusWise for $90, which seems high, until compared to … the University bookstore, which has it listed new for $251.95 and used for $194.80.” Hall said.
In the long run, there is a trend toward moving textbook publishing in a different direction, Allen said.
“The [textbook industry] hasn’t changed that much in the past 10 years,” Allen said. “The change isn’t going to happen overnight. Over time, we’re going to see the market shift into 21st-century business models that are better for everybody.”