The higher ed textbook market has gradually morphed into the used textbook market, and for good reason: They come at a fraction of the cost relative to new books and still permit readers to participate in activities or discussions that rely on the book. In 2016, the National Association of College Stores found that 70 percent of students bought used books over brand new ones1. But there’s a fight going on—traditional textbook publishers are finding ways to short-circuit the used textbook market, and universities are responding in turn.

The workaround for a hefty price tag

On average, the yearly cost of books and supplies at a four-year program at any postsecondary institution is $1,2502. While some students opt to buy a brand new print book in hopes of selling it later, others purchase used books to save money. After all, if a book contains the same material—with only a few scribbles or highlighter marks here or there—why does it matter? And it’s clear students just aren’t spending that money on course materials. The National Association of College Stores reported that undergraduate students in 2018-2019 spent just $4153 annually on required materials—implying that sticker prices are a deterrent for students.

With students increasingly opting to buy used books, publishers have tweaked their strategies for distribution and pricing. Companies have introduced one-time electronic codes to minimize the chance of students selling used material to their peers, granting users access to an e-book for a few months. And once a code is used, it can’t be redeemed for future use.

This is often explained as a “digital first” strategy, wherein new titles are being released digitally before print copies become available. On top of that, students are being encouraged to rent rather than buy print books—limiting the secondhand book market once again.

But this only results in fewer students buying a book at all, nevermind a used one. A report by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and The Student PIRGs4 found that 65 percent of students chose not to buy an assigned book due to its cost. As such, this decision—one that has much to do with affordability—directly hurts students’ grades and academic performance.

How some colleges are helping with alternate solutions

Some institutions are siding with students against these practices. Science students at the University of Georgia are being assigned books for their next course at the end of the previous semester in advance—and a study on the practice found that, on average, students can save 27 percent (20 to 33 percent) by buying textbooks early5.

Students will often sell their books at the end of a term, therefore increasing supply for used books and bringing down fees. On the other hand, in September, campus stores will house fewer used books, stocking new books for close to double the cost of second-hand ones.

University libraries can also play a role in cutting down costs for students. The University of Nebraska says that 48 percent of students decide which classes they enroll in based on the textbook price, while 65 percent opt against buying a book due to its cost6—which is why they started to stock textbooks in their own libraries, giving unrestricted access to undergraduates.

More sustainable options need to be offered to students in terms of supplementary materials, and as 70 percent of students go out of their way to purchase used textbooks, it’s clear that affordability is paramount.

Top Hat’s textbook offerings pose a solution that works for everyone who is interested in increasing academic achievement. Textbooks on Top Hat are entirely digital—which means students do not have to devote time or effort to sourcing used books, and they don’t expire. Find out more about how they work here.


  1. Libertowski, J. (2017, August 7). New Report from National Association of College Stores Shows Decrease in Overall Spending on Course Materials by College Students. Retrieved July 16, 2019, from
  2. Digest of Education Statistics, 2013. (n.d.). Retrieved July 16, 2019, from
  3. NACS Report Shows 14% Decrease in Spending on College Course Materials
  4. Report: Make Higher Education Affordable. (2014, January 27). Retrieved July 16, 2019, from
  5. Cannon, J., & Brickman, P. (2015). Helping Students Save: Assigning Textbooks Early Can Save Money and Enhance Learning. Journal of College Science Teaching, 44(5), 38-41. Retrieved July 16, 2019, from
  6. Blackburn, H., & Owens, T. (2017, October 13). Academic Blasphemy: Providing Access to Textbooks in the Library. Retrieved July 16, 2019, from

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