Illustrations by Danielle Curran

Fixing the Broken Textbook Market

The high price of college textbooks remains one of the most significant out of pocket expenses for students. The cost of textbooks has increased at three times the rate of inflation, and although that trend seems to have plateaued in the past few years, the high barrier of overall cost remains. The move from traditional print copies to temporary digital materials has eliminated many of the traditional cost saving measures students have historically employed. When students are forced to pay for an access code, which is an expiring login to a publisher platform that a student would use to submit their homework, the stakes are higher than ever.

So, how are high course material costs affecting students today? The Student PIRGs implemented a national survey in Fall 2019 to find out. We asked nearly 4,000 students to share their experiences with us, across 83 institutions serving over 500,000 students. We found that despite publishers’ talking points that access codes and other digital materials have answered student’s cries for help over costs, there has been little measurable improvement in key textbook affordability measures over the last six years since our last national survey. The broken textbook market continues to fail to meet student needs, and leaders at institutions of higher education should take further action to aid students.


Course materials continue to pose a financial barrier to student success. Despite recent price fluctuations in the textbook market, students skip purchasing materials and experience the ill effects of high textbook costs at approximately the same rates as before the transition to digital materials. High costs impact more than grades in individual classes, and spill into students’ ability to meet their basic needs.

With the rise of access codes, many students are being priced out of participating in class, especially since homework can be up to 20 percent of their grade. The move to digital also provides new challenges and questions on the front of student data privacy.

Since our last survey, we’ve seen the large payoff from the hard work of educators, librarians, states, and administrators who have worked to encourage the adoption of open textbooks. In an area where expiring materials have not led to price relief for students, solutions like open textbooks are still very much needed to deliver guaranteed savings.


Legislatures and education agencies should provide funding for free and open textbook programs, and act to restrict the use of access codes and other commercial materials that pose threats to student affordability, equity, and access.

Higher education institutions and systems should continue to build infrastructure — grants, professional development and recognition, course release — to make it easier for professors to adopt open textbooks and to release their work under an open license.

Faculty should consider adopting an open textbook and think twice before assigning an access code. They should take student data privacy into consideration when assigning digital materials or tools.

Students should individually advocate for open textbooks and push back against products that collect and potentially sell their data. Student governments and organizations can advocate at the local level for policies that support open textbook adoption and protect student’s digital data. Other actions include setting up student run textbook exchanges, expanding course reserves with their library and creating forums for students to share their experiences.