Why Are Textbooks So Expensive?

If a college student can't afford textbooks, what other alternatives do they have?. pong-photo9/Shutterstock

If you’ve shopped for college textbooks, chances are you’ve felt sticker shock.

The price of college textbooks can be exorbitant, costing several hundred dollars per book each semester. Even without having to purchase rare tomes, the average college student spends $1,100 a year on books. The College Board even suggests students save up to $1,240 a year to spend just on textbooks and course materials.

Granted, there are other options. In most cases, used books can be found online or in college bookstores if you shop early enough. Over the past several years, a surge of e-books, free literature downloads, and book rental sites have helped to defray the high cost of college textbooks. Some sites even offer a buy-by-the-chapter service.

But the fact is, the cost of college textbooks increased 1,041 percent from 1971 to 2015, according to NBC's review of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Textbook costs can also reflect up to 72 percent of the cost of tuition and fees for a full time student at a public institution, and are increasing at about 6 percent per year on average.

Open Educational Resources

Regardless of the cause for high textbook prices, this trend has become a growing concern garnering attention from the media, publishing industry, schools and private foundations.

The open textbook movement aims to address the problem with a grassroots movement calling on publishers, teachers and activists to promote the creation and use of open textbooks and other open educational resources (OER).

Open textbooks are freely available books with nonrestrictive licenses that cover a wide range of disciplines, available in digital and printable formats. Incorporating open textbooks into a curriculum can significantly reduce the cost of education, address the challenge of book shortages, and make textbooks more accessible and modifiable for various educational needs.

In February 2007, the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education created and launched OER Commons to offer support and build a knowledge base around the use and reuse of OER.

OER Commons acts as a network for teachers and students to engage through social bookmarking, tagging, rating and reviewing materials. With more than 120 major content partners, the site offers a point of access for a constantly growing collection containing more than 24,000 items.

OERs range in size from peer-reviewed and updated textbooks to complete lesson plans and college courses. The commonality is that they can all be used, reused and modified due to unrestricted or limited licensing rights.

Open textbooks are a newly emerging development in the worldwide OER movement. There are many sites offering open textbooks, including Project Gutenberg, the first producer of free e-books. Flat World Knowledge is the world’s largest publisher of free and open college textbooks, and Manybooks offers free e-books in several languages. Assayer lists books whose authors have made them available for free.

As colleges and schools across the country test the waters with OERs, concerns have risen regarding the sustainability of open textbooks. While most people would agree that open textbooks are ideal for financially-burdened students, taking book royalties and licensing privileges out of the picture could lead to a drastic reduction in quality textbooks.