Textbook Tactics: Side-stepping Material Costs

For many students, textbooks are prohibitively expensive. Literally.

In the face of jaw-dropping tuition bills we might wonder whether textbooks are just another brick in the wall when it comes to looming student debt. No doubt that’s true for some, but you might be surprised to learn that for many students (particularly at community colleges), textbooks and similar course materials comprise nearly half of their education expenses, and sometimes more.

What to do? At first blush, it might seem like students don’t have a choice. In one sense, they don’t—professors choose which books and editions to bake into their courses, whether to require them, and whether to actually use them if required.

Yet students have options. They run the gamut from buying books used to renting, borrowing, or straight up pirating from BitTorrent. Such tactics vary in efficacy and moral dubiousness, but they’re all threatened by the push of established publishers to sell consumable content (worksheets, online practice sets, access codes) that can’t be reused, resold, or easily redistributed.

But even new-age non-renewables can’t counter some of the more serious measures that students are willing to take to avoid textbook costs. Consider these strategies, taken from a 2012 survey of higher-ed Florida students’ decisions in the face of textbook costs:

Just Don’t Try


If the books cost too much, just take fewer courses. Or don’t take the one with the pricey book. Nearly half of those surveyed reported doing just that.

Do Without


It’s a bold stroke, I’ll give you that. Besides, who needs books when you can have dinner?



Fortunately, Never performs a little better in this category, but I’m not exactly comforted by these results. Notwithstanding the merits of getting back up when life knocks you down, withdrawing from a course can exact an intangible toll on morale and momentum, in addition to concrete losses like scholarship and aid eligibility. Not to mention the tuition and hours of your life you spent on it.

Underperform or Fail


Granted, this stat is student-reported, so it probably includes some pin-the-fail-on-the-textbook (we millennials like externalize our shortcomings). But more than a quarter of the higher-ed students felt that the cost of their books had adversely affected their formally evaluated performance.

Would this fly in the “real world?” Picture a conversation between Rigby the CEO, and Eleanor the HR Director:

RIGBY: But new lighting is so expensive! And I can’t see how it could affect their work. They’re not artists or anything.

ELEANOR: Who cares how it affects their work! A quarter of them believe that it’s keeping them from doing their best work. Can we succeed with that many team members who feel forced to choose mediocrity?

RIGBY: But the cost. . .

ELEANOR: I know, I know. Why don’t we just open up some of the roof panels into skylights. After all, sunshine is free. . .

*             *             *

Now imagine a world where kids give up or avoid classes because they’re worried about paying for books. In the 21st century. That’s what I call a #lxfail.


Author: Zane

Zane is a learning experience designer passionate about the intersection of education, software development, and human-centered design. He manages a language acquisition app for missionaries and studies instructional psych & tech at Brigham Young University.

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