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Fall 2020 Updates: What do college students actually spend on course materials

In Spring 2015 I wrote a post on e-Literate looking at what college students actually spend on course materials in the US. At the time I was frustrated by the frequent yet inaccurate claims that the average spend was nearly $1,200 per year when the actual numbers were closer to $600 per year. The most commonly cited source for the $1,200 per year number was the College Board, but there were two problems with that usage:

  • The “books and supplies” category was used as a budget for financial aid purposes and did not even claim to represent a measure of what students actually spend.

  • The “supplies” part of that category went well beyond course materials.

I argued that the National Association of College Stores (NACS) Student Watch reports and the Student Monitor reports were much more accurate measures of what students spend on course materials. See the original post and this follow-up if you’d like to understand the data sources and usage.

Nevertheless, many advocacy groups continue to misuse the College Board’s data, especially when introducing a free textbook program and making claims about how much money has been saved for students. While I am entirely sympathetic to the need and desire to lower textbook and course material prices for students, no one is served well by misleading information.

Since 2015 there have been three major developments in this area: the College Board revised their reporting this year, Student Watch and Student Monitor have documented multi-year reductions in student spending, and the price of new textbooks has plateaued.

College Board Revisions

Last month the College Board released their “Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2020” report. There is a wealth of information in that report on many subjects, and on page 11 the new method of sharing budget information has a major improvement.

College Board average estimated full-time undergraduate budgets 2020-21

There is a new box in the top right now breaking out “spending on course materials” at $410 per year for both public two-year schools and four-year schools, and separate “other supplies”. Also seen at the bottom is that the College Board now points out that NACS Student Watch and the Student Monitor reports are the most reliable sources for spending estimates on course materials.

Multi-Year Decline in Spending

It’s also worth looking at that number: $410 per year. That is far below the ~$600 per year I described in 2015, and this gets to the second significant update. Both NACS and Student Monitor have reported a consistent downward trend on how much college students in the US spend on course materials.

This chart is from the June 2020 report from NACS Student Watch.

NACS Student Watch 2020 spending on course materials, 2007 - 2020.

Student Monitor has a preliminary release of data reporting a 7% decline in per capital student spending on course materials, dropping from $199 in Fall 2019 to $186 in Fall 2020 (likely indicating a total for the academic year of less than $400, once the spring data are reported).

Student Monitor reporting of 7% decline in per capita spending on learning materials

Plateau in Consumer Price Index (CPI) for New Textbooks

Obviously spending does not equal prices for new materials, such as textbooks. One major contributor to the reduction in student spending has been the proliferation of acquisition options – new and used print purchases, used print rentals, digital purchases, digital rentals, subscription options, and even pirated downloads. A second major contributor has been the slow but steady increase in usage of Open Education Resources (OER), where the impact has been even larger than the 14-24% adoption rates would indicate. A third contributor is the move by the publishing and distribution market towards digital materials and even inclusive access models. 1

But what about the actual price of new textbooks? It turns out that the market had a dramatic turn in 2016, changing from a constant increase is the average new pricing to a plateau, or even slight reduction. The best data source for this measure is the Bureau of Labor Statistics and their Consumer Price Index.

CPI listing of educational books and supplies

Simply put, the average price of new college textbooks stopped rising in 2016. It’s that simple.

Revised Messaging

For those who advocate for OER and reduced costs for course materials (and I consider myself in this group), this information presents a double-edged sword. It should be far more difficult to use the previous tactic of college textbook pricing is skyrocketing to justify a new program as even a cursory review of the College Board budgets will refute the $1,200+ numbers. Likewise, this information should cause people to ask for more transparency in savings estimates for OER or inclusive access programs.

Take, for example, this recent article in EdSource by Gary Michelson (founder of the 20 Million Minds foundation) and Hal Plotkin (a former senior advisor in the Department of Education). Two people who should know better.

In a world brimming with knowledge and ideas, just three companies — Pearson, Cengage and McGraw-Hill — control roughly 80% of the college textbook market. Students pay, on average, more than $1,200 per year for textbooks, according to the College Board, and often far more in some Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) programs.

This information is flat-out wrong and misleading.

At the same time, it should be much easier to explain how OER and multiple acquisition options and inclusive access models are already helping students. It is possible to help save students money on course materials, and there are opportunities to continue this trend, but we should insist on using accurate information.

1 There are some real problems to address in inclusive access models, but there is strong evidence that this move has led to reduced student spending overall.