College Students Struggle to Pay for Textbooks, PIRG Study Says

Photo by wohnai on Flickr.
Photo by wohnai on Flickr.
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It’s mid-afternoon on a cold day at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware. Students can be seen walking throughout campus with their bookbags full of books. But for many students, getting those books isn’t so easy.

Senior Vince Donofrio said it’s always tough to come up with the books required for classes in his major.

“Econ books tend to be really, really, really expensive," Donofrio said. He said they cost between $200 and $300. "And the worst part is that we don’t even use them much of the time," he said.

Junior Blake Adkins said getting books for his classes have required him to become a savvy shopper, looking online for better deals.

“I usually try and buy online at Amazon or somewhere around where I can buy -- like eBay's not bad," Adkins said. "I’ve seen books for probably a couple of hundred bucks through the bookstore and then on Amazon it'll be $80 to $100 max.”

Some students, such as senior Jason Lonnemann, cut the cost of books this way.

“I try to buy them with someone else if I’m in a class with someone to split the price," Lonnemann said. "And then at the end of the semester, we usually sell them back online and split the revenues from that.”

Senior Alyssa DeRobertis is student teaching this semester, so she didn’t need books. But last semester, she came up with a way to get around buying them.

"I got all of them from the library instead," DeRobertis said. "I haven’t bought books in a year.”

But Bryan Stewart with the Ohio Public Interest Research Group’s Education Fund said many students are not lucky enough to find ways to borrow or share books. And he said a new survey by his group shows students who need books they can’t afford are trying to decide which grades they are willing to sacrifice for not having the required reading materials.

“You have three or four books assigned for a class," Stewart said, "and you look and say, ‘Well, I’ve only got about 50 pages assigned in this one and it’s 40 bucks, so maybe I’ll be able to borrow it, maybe I won’t. But I’ll take that hit.’”

Stewart said students often decide which classes to take based on the cost of books. And that can cause problems in the long run if the student doesn’t have the required courses under their belts as they near graduation time. Stewart said sometimes students can sell their books back for other students to use but often times, they only get pennies on the dollar when they do that.

“You could always sell your book back if they didn’t put out a new edition every year, basically making your version, version seven with version eight out, about one fifth the retail value," he said. "And it’s systematically done that way, and it really hurts the student because they don’t really get much for their book when they try to sell it back.”

Stewart said there’s a new option coming on the scene now – it’s called “open textbooks."

“It’s actually a pretty new concept," he said. "It’s a faculty-written, peer-reviewed book. It’s similar to any traditional textbook you’ve probably seen. But they're published in a way that anybody can download them off the internet, and they don’t have some sort of expiration date when you can't open it or you can only print a certain amount.”

Stewart says the fact is there simply are not enough of these open textbooks right now so students are often left to scramble for money to pay for their books.

The College Board estimates students are spending an average of $1,200 on books and supplies this year – about 14 percent of the amount of their tuition at a four-year public college and 39 percent of their tuition at a two-year community college.

And to make matters worse, grant money is often doled out in a way that it applies only to tuition, but leaves nothing to pay for living or book expenses.

The Ohio PIRG report says the best way to lower the cost of textbooks is to take the control away from big publishing companies. So this report calls on lawmakers and faculty at college campuses to adopt their own open textbook initiatives.

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