Textbook Affordability and Student Debt

April 30, 2022

Student loans are a major topic of discussion in academic circles. These loans can sometimes lead to lifelong debt as the cost of a quality education continues to rise. A significant factor in the rising student debt crisis is something many educators don’t think twice about: textbooks.

Textbook prices have skyrocketed for decades. The average cost of a textbook increased more than 161% between 1998 and 2014 alone, and prices have continued to rise since. A single book often costs more than $200, with some specialty texts costing more than $400 each. As a result, students frequently pay more than $1,000 per semester on textbooks alone. 

Expensive textbooks can dramatically impact a college student’s financial ability to get the education they need. Many students are forced to increase their loans or simply go without an essential text. Teachers looking to make education more accessible have the power to prevent these costs. Keep reading to learn more about the current state of textbook prices, how they affect learners, and what higher education instructors can do to make things easier for their students.

The Problem With Modern Textbook Affordability

Textbook prices are undoubtedly high, but why? The actual cost of developing and printing a textbook has not gone up nearly as much as prices have. 

There are a few factors leading to higher prices. First, textbook manufacturers understand that they have a captive audience. College students need certain degrees to get the jobs they want in many fields. That means they must take specific classes to learn the requisite information. As long as a textbook continues to be assigned, the manufacturer can charge a high price, and students will be required to pay it.

Next, publishers often encourage educators to assign these texts by offering financial benefits. If a professor co-writes a textbook, they receive royalties for every sale. Many publishers will provide professors with the chance to edit or contribute to a textbook, giving them royalty rights, then suggest that those same professors require the texts in their classes to increase their income from the book. Again, students have no options other than to get that book, letting the publisher increase prices.

Textbooks Are Increasing Student Loan Debt

The growing cost of textbooks is directly contributing to the student debt crisis. That’s because not only are textbook costs rising, but resale values are also dropping. 

Many textbook publishers release a new edition of their texts every year or two. These textbooks are similar to previous editions but include reordered chapters and different homework questions. As a result, students can’t buy a previous edition and trust that their homework or assigned readings will still be accurate. 

That means that when a student buys a textbook, they often can’t find someone to buy it back from them at the end of the term. Every $200+ book they have purchased is now nothing more than a reference book with no resale value. They get no return on their investment and increase their student loan debt with every costly book. 

The Backlash Against High Textbook Costs

For obvious reasons, there’s a significant backlash against the excessive cost of textbooks. As many as 85% of students facing high textbook costs have actively chosen not to purchase a required text because of its price. These students either find other methods of accessing a text or go without, potentially suffering lower grades as a result.

The backlash isn’t just coming from students, though. Many higher education institutions are also looking for ways to improve textbook affordability.

This is partly because costly textbooks can push students away from choosing a school. Expensive textbooks can also damage a school’s reputation if students avoid purchasing required materials and suffer reduced academic success.

Colleges and universities have begun looking for ways to reduce textbook costs to make their degrees more appealing and provide better learning materials for students. These institutions have realized that forcing students to pay more for books on top of their tuition is a recipe for failure.

Student Alternatives To Purchasing Textbooks

Students are nothing if not inventive. Many have found other ways to access their textbooks to complete their education, including:


The most common way students access texts without purchasing them is by renting them instead. Textbook rentals can be an excellent way for learners to access information when they need it at a lower price. 

However, renting textbooks doesn’t always cut the price down by that much. Textbooks that are frequently updated may cost almost as much to rent as to buy. Renting textbooks also prevents students from selling back books at the end of the semester to recover some of the cost of the book. 


After renting, the next best solution is for students to borrow a textbook from their school’s library. Many schools require the library to keep at least one or two copies of every required textbook each semester. As a result, students can access them for free when they’re on campus.

The problem is that these textbooks are limited. Large classes lead to high demand, and students relying on library copies may not be able to access them when they actually need them. Furthermore, remote students won’t have access to library books at all.


Another possibility is sharing a book with a friend. If students know someone else who has the textbook, this can be an easy way to access the information without paying anything. 

There are two downsides to sharing, though. First, as with library books, a shared copy may not be accessible when a student needs it. Second, for students to share a book, at least one person still needs to purchase it. The student who buys it still faces a significant financial burden, even if they’re helping their friends avoid one. 


Finally, students with no other options often choose to download textbooks. In some cases, these may be free, open-source texts, such as downloadable textbooks from open access sites or the school library. However, it’s much more likely that students will search out illegal copies that may not be accurate or could expose them to computer viruses. Illegal downloads should be discouraged since they violate copyright laws and could put students or institutions at legal risk.

How Educators Can Help Reduce Textbook Expenses

Workarounds like renting and sharing textbooks are helpful for students, but they’re not perfect. Sharing and borrowing books significantly limits the amount of time students can study, while renting or buying a digital download can be almost as expensive as buying a physical copy. Educators can help improve textbook affordability by trying some of the following tactics.

Avoid Expensive Textbooks With Low Resale Value

The most obvious solution is simply not assigning textbooks with excessive price tags. Educators should research the actual cost of a book before choosing it for their courses. If the price seems too high, you should look for an alternative resource, such as open educational resources (OERs).

Similarly, try to ascertain the resale value of a textbook. Any book that regularly sees new editions will have a poor resale value, making it harder for students to get a return on their investment. Choose books that either don’t see frequent revisions or have already been replaced by a more recent edition to shrink the gap between the purchase price and the resale value.

Assign Homework Outside of Subscription-Based Services 

Another expensive textbook trap is a book that requires college students to go online to do homework. These online portals can add another hundred dollars to the book’s price. While these services may make it easier for educators to grade, they also make it harder for students to afford an education. Instead, assign physical homework or choose a low-cost digital service that doesn’t charge students a subscription fee just to access it.

Upload Readings Online 

If you can’t find another source for the information students need to learn, you still don’t have to assign an expensive textbook. Instead, you can upload or link to open educational resources through your school’s LMS for students to read. Since this serves an educational purpose, uploading excerpts from a textbook is generally considered fair use and unlikely to violate copyright laws. It also gives your students valuable information without a three-figure price tag.

Choose Courses With Included Digital Textbooks

The most effective solution for both educators and students is a course with an included digital textbook. For example, Caduceus International Publishing (CIP) offers online courses that include free, lifetime student access to the course materials. These classes have all the necessary information built-in, so there’s no need to assign outside textbooks. That offers significant cost savings to students and guarantees that your class will always have access to the readings and homework assignments they need. 

Improve Textbook Affordability With CIP

The excessive cost of textbooks just isn’t sustainable. Students can’t afford to pay hundreds of dollars on books every term on top of their tuition. Educators can help lighten that financial burden by refusing to assign expensive texts and providing students with free access to required textbooks.

CIP’s interactive digital courses provide students with online textbooks and much more at no cost. You can explore how CIP can help you reduce student costs by requesting your demo today.

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