It’s no secret that the cost of a four-year college education in America is on the rise, and showing no signs of slowing down. Even after tuition is paid, any incoming college student still faces plenty of costs to be dealt with. There’s dorm room furnishings, notebooks and pencils, materials fees, beer pong supplies…and one more growing cost that has blindsided many a new freshman: textbooks.
In the last ten years, the cost of tuition has seen a 500 percent increase, but tuition isn’t the fastest growing burden on college students. According to economics professor Mark J. Perry, textbook prices have increased a whopping 812 percent in the last ten years, and College Board estimates that students are, on average, paying $1,200 a year for books and supplies.
It comes as no surprise that the new generation of students, going to college in the digital age, are finding more and more ways to avoid heavy textbooks with a heavier price tag.
Fighting the Cost
When you’re an undergraduate with a budget that balks at a ten dollar pizza, textbooks with a sticker price north of $200 are a quite a blow to a wallet. Most college textbooks are published by a few large publishing houses and updated often with new editions, a practice that has been raising eyebrows among students and professors who wonder how much difference the new edition really makes.
US News reports that more than three quarters of a textbook’s sticker price goes to paying the costs of printing. After fighting a losing battle to prevent fed-up students from simply scanning their textbooks and distributing them for free, some publishers have jumped on the bandwagon and started producing inexpensive, high quality electronic versions of their texts. But cost isn’t the only factor attracting students, schools and even a few publishers to electronic textbooks.
Another feature that makes e-readers and online textbooks so appealing is the sheer volume of material available. High schools in Fairfax, VA recently made the switch to using e-readers in the classroom, giving their teachers access to 17 thousand textbooks – and that’s just material from traditional publishers. The Internet age gave birth to a whole new kind of educational tool: Open Educational Resources, or OERs, high quality textbooks and other resources, available online, completely for free.
Wading through the ocean of material online can be overwhelming, but the power of the Internet is ready to serve. In 2012, a new company called Boundless.com emerged, marketing themselves as a textbook replacement service that acts as an OER librarian. Following the success of Boundless (and a less successful lawsuit), publishing companies are getting in on this game too: Pearson recently launched Project Blue Sky, an online resource merging their textbook material with OERs.
Convenience and Multitasking
If you’re in college today you have a very unique quality: you’re a part of the first generation to grow up online. Forbes.com reported that millennials (the generation born between 1976 and 2001) multitask far more than previous generations. For millennials, electronic textbooks aren’t just a cost saving measure. They’re a multimedia platform for studying: a perfect fit for tech-savvy young people.
Some students say they still prefer to read paper-and-ink books, complaining of eyestrain and the difficulty of taking notes on a screen. The digital boom has provided more and more options to get around those potential drawbacks. For example, dedicated e-readers with glare-free screens, make long hours of reading easier on the eyes. A wide variety of free reading apps for Android like the Nook app make it easy to download .pdf files and highlight, make notes, and draw mustaches on the illustrations.
If you’re an upper level student, especially in a STEM field (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics), you’ll find yourself doing research and writing papers that require scientific, peer reviewed articles. In decades past, that would mean long nights in the library, but in the age of the .pdf and the online journal, a few dozen libraries full of research fits nicely in your pocket.
It’s unlikely that good old paper-and-ink books will ever leave us for good, but the times they are a-changin’, faster now than ever before. College kids adapt fast, and textbook publishers had better be ready to adapt just as fast, or face the same fate as the newspaper and the record store. We seem to be on our way to a compromise, with ever more e-readers, online books, and sites like Boundless and Project Blue Sky. Because if there’s one thing the past two decades have taught us, it’s never, never underestimate the power of the Internet.
Image credit: CC by Wesley Fryer