In his first year at Ontario, Canada’s University of Waterloo, James Quiambao made what he now believes was a typical freshman mistake: he bought all his required textbooks. “I tried to buy used books where I could, but it was still a huge expense,” says the 22-year-old computer-engineering student. “After I found out that I didn’t really need them all, I got more strategic.”

Quiambao says he performed a sort of cost-benefit analysis at the beginning of each semester, weighing the potential impact on his grades against any associated price tags—in part by asking senior students whether a course really required a book. And he wasn’t alone. Most students in his program did the same, often sharing study materials on a communal Google drive, and otherwise cobbling together various resources—even YouTube videos—to sub in for missing texts.

Rising costs, falling sales

As The Atlantic magazine reported in 2013, the ever-escalating price of textbooks has outstripped everything from healthcare to homes since the 1970s. The magazine cited data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, showing that between 1978 and 2013, the cost of college textbooks in the United States grew by a staggering 812 percent—by far the fastest growing expense related to post-secondary education, well above tuition, fees and housing.

So it’s no surprise that rising costs are causing students to cut corners when it comes to their required reading. A 2017 survey of 1,000 current students, conducted by Wakefield Research in the United States and Canada, found that nearly 40 percent have avoided purchasing course materials for at least one of their classes. And a widely cited 2014 report called “Fixing the Broken Textbook Market” by the United States Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), was even more damning. It included a survey of 2,000 students, on 150 campuses, and found that 65 percent of students had decided to forgo at least one textbook purchase.

The effect on grades

We know textbooks are pricey, and we know that more and more students are trying to muddle through their studies without them. But does skipping their textbooks harm students’ grades? “I would say, yes,” says Quiambao. “Definitely in my experience, for some courses, if you want really high marks, the book is necessary.”

Detailed, peer-reviewed studies on the point are in short supply. But we know that students, like Quiambao, strongly believe their grades are at risk. In the 2014 PIRG survey, 94 percent of students who skipped a textbook purchase said they were concerned their grades would suffer. “Not only are students choosing not to purchase the materials they are assigned by their professor,” stated the report, “but they are knowingly accepting the risk of a lower grade to avoid paying for the textbook.”

But here’s the real kicker—high textbook costs may contribute to flatlining graduation rates. A 2009 study prepared for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that textbook costs (among other growing financial burdens) were a significant contribution to students’ decision to drop out, with 60 percent claiming that books and other fees pose a significant burden.

“Whether it is doing worse in a course without access to the required textbook or taking longer to reach graduation, it is clear that the issue of textbook costs has evolved from a simple financial concern to a threat to student success,” said Nicole Allen, a spokeswoman for the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), in reference to the PIRG’s “Fixing the Broken Textbook Market” survey.

Unless textbook costs come down—and there seems to be little evidence they will—students will suffer. And that means students, and educators, will need to find alternatives and workarounds.

The way forward

Recently, a model dubbed “inclusive access”—bulk deals that fold the cost of textbooks into tuition fees—has gained traction. The idea is that students will have full access to a particular publisher’s catalogue, at discount prices, with the cost included in tuition fees.

But the inclusive access model has come under fire for a variety of reasons: students sometimes prefer non-digital options; inclusive access prevents students from eliminating their costs altogether by seeking out used books or sharing texts; and the model may restrict the textbook options available to professors when choice is limited to a particular publisher’s library.

It’s even resulted in legal tussles—a second-hand bookstore chain in South Carolina recently sued a nearby technical college, arguing that an inclusive access deal struck by the school was hurting its sales, and that the college wasn’t following the required process to let students opt out of the deal.

To make ends meet, students have also been using more borrowed, rented and used books, which is cutting further into publishers’ bottom lines. Textbook giant Pearson, for example, has made repeated headlines in the past several years about its declining profits and layoffs, even as its textbook prices continued to increase. In June 2019, it announced a move to a digital-first model, a cost-cutting measure that the company positioned as a means of reducing prices for students.

This spring, textbook giants McGraw-Hill and Cengage merged, leading to concerns about even higher textbook costs as fewer players dominate the market. Earlier this year, SPARC’s Nicole Allen spoke to online news site Vice about the issue. “Textbook publishing finally hit the wall in terms of how much they could raise prices without pricing themselves out of the market,” she said. “All of the turbulence we’re seeing in the market now is publishers grasping for a new model that can bring sticker prices down while keeping Wall Street happy.”

In the meantime, students are likely to keep going without—even if that means their grades slip. “In one course, I didn’t get the book until exams,” recalls Quiambao. “There were gaps in my knowledge, and I realized, ‘Oh, of course, this explains things very well. I wish I had started reading it earlier; it would have saved a ton of time. It was right there in the book. But you just can’t buy them all.”