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Beyond the News

Getting a Handle on Textbook Costs

University Business, September 2012

Textbooks are a big ticket purchase for college students, but that cost has declined slightly over the past five years. That’s not to say students are buying fewer books—or that textbook prices have gone down—but that they have found ways to bring the cost down, often with the help of campus bookstores.

According to the new Student Watch report from OnCampus research (a division of the National Association of College Stores), students spent an average of $655 annually on course materials, down from $702 four years ago, partly due to the ready availability of rental books and digital texts.

“The steady decline in textbook spending indicates that the money-saving strategies college stores have implemented are working,” said Charles Schmidt, NACS’ director of public relations.

Although long available from online sources, textbook rentals from college stores are a more recent innovation, but one that has grown rapidly. Schmidt says from an initial group of about 300 campus bookstores offering rentals in 2009, the number has swelled to more than 3,000. “Rental programs can save a student between 45 and 66 percent off the price of a new print textbook, and is often less expensive than digital formats,” Schmidt says.

But digital texts are coming into their own as well, particularly with new formats that can be used across various platforms, says Nick Fryer, B2B marketing and trade show manager at Follett Higher Education Group. Fryer notes that digital text sales are strong, and he expects fall sales reports to bear that out. The company recently announced a partnership with digital text publisher Inkling to distribute e-books to more than 900 of Follett’s campus bookstores.

Some analysts expect that digital textbook sales will one day surpass 25 percent of new textbook sales for the higher education and career education markets, due in large part to higher than expected sales of devices such as the Kindle and iPad. Rob Reynolds, writing at, predicts that digital texts “will be the dominant form factor” in higher ed texts within seven years.