Does Your College Student Need Textbooks?

The question of whether or not your student needs textbooks in college is not as simple as it seems.  The simple answer is ”Yes, of course.”  The more complex answer may be, ”It depends.”

The cost of college textbooks is high. No one would argue that. The cost of producing most textbooks is high, most textbooks are required so students do not have choices, and the costs are passed along to the students.  One study conducted by the College Board has estimated that most students should expect to pay approximately $1200 annually on textbooks.  Many students, and their parents, have not calculated the cost of textbooks into their college costs.  So students are taken by surprise, and may feel that this is an additional, and therefore optional cost.

Because of the high cost of textbooks, many students are opting out of buying books.  The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) found that approximately 30% of seniors and 25% of First Year students said that they did not purchase books. The Student Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), in a non-scientific survey of 1,905 students at 13 colleges found that 70% of students said they opted out of books for at least one course.  However, 78% of those students believed that they would not do as well in that course without the book.

Clearly, many students have chosen to forego a textbook, but admit that the decision may impact their ability to do well in a course.  Choosing not to purchase the textbook involves some risk. Not all material may be covered in class, students may not be able to complete all assignments or may have trouble preparing for exams. One student who did not purchase her book stated, ”This was stressful, as I often fell behind in the readings.”

Students may choose not to purchase textbooks for a number of reasons.  The high cost is certainly a major factor, as is failure to plan for that cost.  Students may choose not to purchase textbooks simply because they have that option.  Students are told they should buy the textbook, and the syllabus may say it is required, but the choice is still theirs and some students choose to exert their independence.  However, another reason that students may not purchase a textbook for a particular course may be that it isn’t really used.  Although almost every college course requires a textbook of some sort, some college professors never use or refer to it.  Students learn quickly the courses in which they can skip the book.

Some students who choose to skip buying the textbook use other means to obtain the material.  Some are able to find sections of the material available online.  According to a Book Industry Study Group, as much as 34% of students may download pirated material illegally.  This is up from 21% just three years ago.

There are other, less risky, means which students may use to obtain material without purchasing a textbook.  An increasing number of students now rent textbooks — either in hard copy or electronic version.  Some college libraries make copies of textbooks available. This requires students to do their work in the library, but can save the cost.  One study suggested that up to 31% of students said they photocopied or scanned material from other students.  This was an increase from 21% in 2010.

Students who choose to purchase their books are also becoming increasingly creative.  Some buy used copies of books — perhaps earlier editions than the one suggested by the professor.  Used books may be purchased through the college bookstore, but often even more inexpensively through many online sources.  Some campuses even have swap sites where students can find others who have just completed a course to buy their book.  Students may share the cost of a book with someone if they feel they can coordinate study time.

Although the cost of college textbooks continues to increase, options have increased as well.  How much a student ultimately pays may depend on how much time a student is willing to invest in hunting down those options.

Parents and students should discuss and explore the cost of textbooks and textbook options, and plan for the additional costs and/or additional time required to find creative solutions.  Students who opt to forgo textbooks altogether, a risky academic choice, may be largely those students who have not planned ahead.  Before your student heads to college, or heads back for another semester, talk about books, their importance for college success, and how to finance and obtain them.

Note: Some links in our post are for affiliate products. If you use our links, College Parent Central receives a small percentage of your purchase price. This does not change the cost to you.  We think it’s only fair to let you know that.

Related Posts:

New Textbook Information Available to Students

College Textbooks: Tools of the Trade

Where and How to Buy College Textbooks

College Textbooks: Keep, Sell, Donate?

How, and Why, to Help Your College Student Create a Budget

E-Textbooks: A Love/Hate Relationship for College Students

2 thoughts on “Does Your College Student Need Textbooks?”

  1. The worst part about this textbook dilemma for me is the chance that your teacher will never even give you a reason to open the textbook “required for the course.”

    At the end of the semester you’re staring at the unopened textbook and wondering why you wasted the money in the first place.

    It’s rare but it’s unbelievably frustrating.

  2. Thanks for this great article–this aspect of college costs and savings aren’t discussed often enough.

    I did almost all of the assigned reading in college, while purchasing less than a quarter of books and never obtaining material illegally. Libraries are a great resource, particularly if you’re willing to be creative. Most university libraries are linked regionally, meaning you can borrow books for a short time from other universities. I was shocked by how few students were members of their local libraries as well.

    The textbooks I did choose to purchase were great resources and are books I have kept and plan to use later in my life. Most others were available to borrow (or split with a friend in the class) and I was able to finish most of the reading while incurring less cost. (I wrote about all of this on my blog here:

    Thanks again for this great article.



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