Dylan Miller spent $495 on college textbooks at the University of Northern Iowa — $167.50 for a linear algebra textbook alone this spring semester. He might have used the books once a month, perhaps.
The internet? Used it close to two hours a day.
So why does he still buy textbooks?
“That’s a great question,” said Miller, 20, a sophomore studying actuarial science. “I will not be buying textbooks next semester.”
A lot of college students are trying to avoid textbooks costs that range from around $20 for a book on writing grant proposals to $400 for a physics book, a spring IowaWatch/College Media Journalism Project revealed. Some rent books, saving an average $29 per book depending on the subject. They also rely on information they can find on the internet, sometimes as a first reference.
E-books? Hardly ever, interviews on seven Iowa campuses revealed. Do students feel they get value for what they pay for college textbooks?
“Absolutely not,” said Alexander Crehan, 21, of Troy, Illinois, who wrapped up his junior year at William Penn University this spring.
Crehan, with a major in business management, said he paid $827.45 for all of his textbooks in spring semester. The most expensive was $240.
Educators and even bookstores share students concerns. The average price of a new college textbook rose from $58 in 2011-12 to $82 in 2014-15 before dropping slightly to $80 in 2015-16, the National Association of College Stores reports.
The College Board estimated in its most recent report, for 2017-18, books plus other course materials cost an average $1,250 for the school year. That is a relatively small portion of the estimated $25,290 the College Board estimates it costs to attend a four-year public college and $50,900 to attend a four-year private nonprofit college in the United States. But it is a cost, nonetheless.
The National Association of College Stores shows college students paying an average of $579 for required course materials and another $506 for technology and school supplies for the 2016-17 academic year. The costs for required course materials only is down from $701 in 2007-08.
The reasons costs dropped boil down to students increasing their use of free or digital school materials and renting course books, the association reports.
Interviews in the IowaWatch/College Media Journalism Project found the more technical the major, the more likely a student purchased and wanted to keep a textbook. These majors were in fields such as chemistry, mathematics, pre-med and computer science.
Jamie Pritzker, 22, said she didn’t buy any books during her fall 2017 semester at the University of Iowa, where she wrapped up her college studies in May with a major in cinema studies and minor in criminology.
“Throughout my time here at the University of Iowa, I only ever really used about three books,” she said. “Three. Can you imagine that? What a waste of time and hard-earned money.”
Heather Dean, course materials manager at the Iowa State University Book Store in Ames, said value is all about how a book is used.
“Even if the book is only $10, if they’re not using it, there’s still no value,” Dean said in a story first published in the Iowa State Daily. “Now, how many books are $10? Not very many.”
Dean said publishers set book prices and that the University Book Store upcharges only enough to cover operating costs.
A University of Iowa Undergraduate Educational Policy and Curriculum Committee required that professors order textbooks for fall semester before summer break to give students more time to calculate the cost of their textbooks and find money to purchase them.
But while students can plan, professors risk using outdated materials, said Rachel Williams, associate professor in the gender, women’s and sexuality studies department at the University of Iowa since 1999.
Williams, a member of the policy and curriculum committee, did not require textbooks for spring semester. She primarily uses scholarly articles and readings obtained through the University of Iowa Library database and blog posts.
This allows her to teach the most current, relevant information for her classes, she said. It also allows her to tailor teaching materials to her courses better without making students purchase textbooks that may only have a few relevant chapters.
It wasn’t long ago the internet was considered suspect in academia. But source material is posted there, and college teachers are willing to point students in its direction.
Erin VanLaningham, associate professor of English at Loras College, sometimes sends students to the internet. “I’ll definitely post a link instead of requiring students to purchase the entire book,” she said.