VOLUME 14 NUMBER 4
FALL 2013

Reduce Textbook Sticker-Shock

Daniel R. Coquillette Rare Book Room © Jorge Royan / CC-BY-SA-3.0

The issue of college affordability and return on investment is in the national spotlight. Much of the conversation centers on tuition increases that outstrip inflation, but the high cost of textbooks adds to the financial impact. For many, tuition costs are planned for or covered by financial aid or loans. But textbook costs may hit students as a nasty surprise. A quick look at the BC Bookstore this fall revealed that costs for new books in the $150 to $250 range are not uncommon. Used books and rental programs can help, when available, but the total costs for a semester's readings are still significant.

Two years ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported a survey finding that 7 out of 10 college students had skipped buying a textbook because of cost. The 2012 National Survey of Student Engagement reported that

Concern for finances appears to affect many students' academic performance. About one in four first-year students and one in three seniors frequently did not purchase required academic materials due to their cost, and a third of students believed that financial concerns interfered with their academic performance.

At Boston College, the Montserrat Coalition has reported that two-thirds of high financial need students say that they cannot afford to purchase all of their books.

Several academic libraries have partnered with others in their universities to develop initiatives to tackle the high cost of textbooks. At the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, the Provost and the University Libraries launched a faculty incentive program that encourages the use of existing free information resources to support student learning. Small financial incentives were given to faculty to retool course syllabi using openly available resources and those already subscribed by the libraries.

Recently, Inside Higher Ed reported on efforts by Stanford University librarians to examine required course packs, often finding that the articles within are already available through library databases. A quick unscientific look at the course packs for sale at the BC Bookstore is interesting. Not many course packs are used. The Carroll School classes tend to be heavier users of course packs than others. That is understandable since much of the material included can only be used by paying fees - proprietary case materials and Harvard Business Review articles, for instance. A few of the course packs in the bookstore did contain substantial public domain material, material freely accessible (and linkable) on the Web, or available through subscribed library databases. There may be reasons for faculty to include this material - for convenience or as an optional alternative to links in Blackboard.

Faculty members at Boston College are undoubtedly aware of the high costs of student resources. Some professors create their own materials, many link to subscribed resources through Blackboard or Course Reserves and many link to freely available materials on the Web.

The Subject Specialist Librarians are available to advise faculty on ways to lower the cost of class materials. Working with faculty to find the best resources is central to our expertise and mission. We can provide assistance in finding available high quality resources that meet faculty pedagogical goals without adding to student expenses.

Some types of resources that are available as free or low-cost class resources:

  • Public domain materials such as government documents, legislation, court cases.
  • Open Access websites or scholarly materials. We have been featuring some of these on our library home page the list of sites we are highlighting is available, but there are many more, and the Subject Specialist Librarian would be able to help you find them for your discipline. Downloadable books from HathiTrust and digital collections from the Digital Public Library of America are just two examples of sites with a wealth of important resources.
  • Subscribed library materials. Most of the journal articles we have access to (and have already paid for) can be linked for students who log-in with their BC credentials. Librarians can do this linking for you.
  • Open access journals in your subject.
  • Open Educational Resources (OER) such those created by OpenStax College. This initiative of Rice University aims to develop high quality free texts for college students in basic subjects. This project is supported by several philanthropic foundations, including the Hewlett Foundation and the Gates Foundation. Free textbooks available so far cover Physics, Sociology, Biology, Concepts Biology, and Anatomy and Physiology. Other subjects such as Economics, Statistics, Psychology and Chemistry are coming soon.
  • Commercial publishers such as Flat World Knowledge offer low cost textbooks printed on demand, with a variety of price-point options.

The University of Minnesota has developed a catalog of available Open Access textbooks.

Faculty members interested in finding free or low-cost class materials (or developing their own) should contact their Subject Specialist Librarian for support. Developing a research partnership with your librarian can help you lower costs for students while maintaining high quality standards for course resources.

Jane Morris
Scholarly Communications Librarian