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Student Groups Pressure Colleges Over the Insane Cost of Textbooks

Students can spend $1,300 per year on textbooks, but online textbooks could ease that burden, a new analysis finds

College students shell out hundreds of dollars on textbooks every year. The average price of a new textbook was $68 in 2012, according to the National Association of College Stores, and the College Board suggests students budget between $1,225 and $1,328 a year for books and supplies. That can amount to as much as 40 percent of tuition for community college students, but there may be a way to chip away at that expense, a new report says.

Switching one of their dead-tree texts out for an open-source one—a book available for free online or to print at a minimal cost—saves students an average of $128 per course every semester, said the Student Public Interest Research Groups in a report (pdf) published Tuesday. 

The Student PIRGs, a group of state student advocacy organizations, crunched data from five colleges that have introduced open textbook programs to estimate how much students save by using open books. With more than 11 million full-time undergraduates in the U.S., and upwards of 160 open textbooks on the market, the group says students would save $1 billion a year if they all replaced a single book with its open-source alternative. 

Of course, if finding an open-source book right for a specific class were as simple as running a quick Google search, more college students would probably be doing it. There's no sense downloading a free calculus book if your open-textbook exams are based on the pricier alternative. The report acknowledges as much.

"Many faculty members are not aware that these alternatives exist and are ready for classroom use," the report says, and "in making the transition from publisher-prepared materials to open textbooks, faculty often need some assistance in finding open materials for their course." The report adds that it can also be tough to find open-source versions of books for more advanced, niche courses. 

In the past three decades, the price of college textbooks has risen faster than the price of medical care and home care.
In the past three decades, the price of college textbooks has risen faster than the price of medical care and home care.
American Enterprise Institute

Open-source books have an obvious upside, though. The cost of college textbooks has risen 812 percent since 1978—far outpacing the rise in costs for medical services and home prices, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. To solve that problem, Student PIRGs say colleges should be more proactive in helping curb student textbook costs. 

Colleges should "take ownership over solving high textbook prices," the report said. "Institutions should convene campus stakeholders and launch their own open textbook programs."