How Affordable Textbooks Boost Student Success at Online Colleges

affordable textbooks student success

The Challenge of Textbook Costs for Online Students

Earning a college degree is expensive, with students spending $38,270 per year on average. But it isn’t only the rising tuition and fees that students worry about.

While tuition inflation is at 4.7%, textbook inflation is at 7%. College students spend between $628 and $1,200 annually on textbooks and supplies. But it can be as high as $1,500, particularly for students in STEM programs. The textbook costs can be 26% of the total tuition and fees – truly, a burden.

Such is the significant burden that studies have shown that students:

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  • Failed their courses and cited the high cost of textbooks
  • Skipped buying required or recommended textbooks
  • Worried about the negative impact of not buying textbooks on their grades
  • Decided which courses to enroll in based on the required textbooks and their costs
  • Skipped enrolling in courses with expensive textbooks
  • Borrowed money to buy expensive textbooks
  • Worked extra hours to pay their textbook-related debts or buy textbooks
  • Skipped meals to buy textbooks

But why are college textbooks expensive in the first place? This is true for both traditional and digital textbooks.

Publishers of traditional textbooks produce new editions every year. Publishers pass on the costs of printing, binding, and distributing them to consumers. Then, professors make it compulsory for their students to buy these new versions. As a result, students cannot adopt cost-saving measures, such as buying used textbooks.

Publishers of digital textbooks use access codes. Students pay full price for these access codes that only give temporary access. The access codes provide access to the program’s LMS and its features for a specific period only.

Digital textbooks are expensive, too, because of the high costs of data storage. Publishers must maintain physical spaces and electricity for their servers.

And then there are schools with inclusive access agreements. In these agreements, the tuition and fees include the cost of online textbooks. This means students must buy new textbooks instead of being able to share, rent or buy used books.

Indeed, the absence of affordable textbooks is among the most pressing concerns. In the following sections, we’ll look at its impact on online college student success. We’ll discuss its effects on student retention, academic performance, and student satisfaction.

Many studies establish a direct relationship between textbook affordability and retention. In a University of New Mexico study, the high cost of textbooks is a “serious barrier to academic success.”

Most undergraduate students reported not buying the required textbooks. Students also borrowed books from friends and libraries. Many also used alternative resources, which can be inferior in quality. These are particularly problematic for underserved students, such as those from minority groups.

The domino effect is easy to spot when students don’t have the required textbooks. Students have a higher risk of failing their classes and dropping out of college. Indeed, student retention becomes less likely with each failing grade.

Even when they buy the required textbooks, they have to make sacrifices in other areas. This can mean skipping meals and even becoming homeless. These issues affect student retention, too. Between survival needs and a college education, the choice can be inevitable.

A Contributions Research study also came to the same conclusion. Students didn’t buy commercial textbooks because of their costs. This resulted in higher D, F, and W rates (i.e., D and F grades and Withdrawals). Again, low student retention occurs.

If we look at it another way, high student retention is among the best low-cost textbooks benefits. When students can afford their textbooks, they are more likely to earn their degrees.

Many online students and professors attest to the benefits of affordable textbooks.

At Concordia University – St. Paul, students weren’t doing the required readings. Many didn’t have the required textbooks because of their high costs. CUSP then adopted a zero-cost material policy in its online programs.

This turned things around in many ways. Professors say that it’s a proactive effort for student recruitment and retention. Students are more engaged in their studies and achieve better grades.

The materials included e-books, articles, website information, and OER books. Both professors and students say that these materials made for better learning, too. Plus, students appreciated not having to buy expensive textbooks.  

Many other universities have also adopted similar approaches, including:

  • The California State University System adopted its Affordable Learning Solutions initiative. Students have more access to low and no-cost learning materials. Student engagement and retention improved.
  • Rutgers University ensured easy and effective access to affordable learning materials. The Open and Affordable Textbooks Program resulted in student savings on textbooks.
  • The University of Central Florida adopted its Textbook Affordability program. Students access learning materials through library sources, e-books, and open educational resources (OER). Both are low- to-no-cost options.

The bottom line: Making textbooks more affordable increases student retention.  

Improving Academic Performance Through Accessible Textbooks

There’s also a direct relationship between academic performance and textbooks. These studies are a few of the research that supports the view:

  • In an ERIC study, the use of OER resulted in reduced DFW rates and improved grades among students. OER addressed the issues of student retention, achievement gaps, and affordability. This was particularly true for disadvantaged and underserved students.
  • In another ERIC study, students who used affordable digital textbooks reported better grades. This emphasized the direct correlation between affordability and academic performance. 
  • In a Florida Virtual Campus Survey, the study came to the same conclusion. Making affordable textbooks more accessible can result in better academic outcomes.

These findings also apply to online students and their academic performance. Note that the main online college education value is in its comparative affordability.

Actual savings in time and travel costs are oft-cited reasons for its affordability. Online students also cite being able to work while studying as a major benefit (i.e., low opportunity costs). Reasonable tuition and fees and financial aid options also decrease the cost of attendance.

The result: Affordability contributes to the high student retention online colleges enjoy. Add in college textbook savings, and student retention isn’t a big issue. Many online programs use OER and other low- to no-cost learning materials.

On another note, how does having textbooks on time promote academic performance? Students with the required textbooks are more likely to be:

  • Prepared for their classes through early readings. Their early engagement can strengthen their learning and academic performance.
  • Active during class discussions and classroom activities. Students can understand the lectures and ask informed questions. With their deeper understanding, their academic performance improves.
  • Consistent in their study habits. Their easy access to required textbooks means studying as scheduled. Consistent studying contributes to better information retention and, thus, academic performance.
  • Free from the stress of worrying about their academic performance. Students don’t have to borrow books from their peers and libraries. The time can be spent on studying instead, meaning better time management.

On a larger scale, access to affordable textbooks promotes greater inclusion and equity. Students can study on a more level playing field. Instead of being left out, the opportunities to join in are better with effective textbook access.

Enhancing Overall Student Satisfaction in Online Colleges

Many studies have also emphasized the positive student satisfaction online learning link. Florida State College and San Diego State University adopted inclusive and fair access textbook programs. Students gain access to digital materials at discounted prices.

The University of Nevada Las Vegas and California State Polytechnic University Pomona are also early adopters of textbook accessibility programs. Both universities reported an increase in overall student satisfaction. This was the result of the affordability and convenience of digital textbooks.

How does effective access to affordable textbooks contribute to overall student satisfaction? Students are more likely to be: 

  • Focused on their studies and enjoy improved academic performance.
  • Engaged in their learning experiences and learn more from their professors and peers

Online students who express overall satisfaction with their learning experiences are more likely to stay in their programs. Affordable textbooks can also contribute to student satisfaction through customizable formats. Digital textbooks, for example, can be customized according to learning needs, such as interactive and multimedia content.

Conclusion: The Value of Investing in Affordable Education Resources

In conclusion, access to affordable textbooks is among the determinants of academic performance and satisfaction among students. For this reason, many online colleges and universities also offer financial aid for textbooks. Check out the University of Oregon and Florida Atlantic University for their textbook programs.

Online students should also look into external scholarship opportunities for textbooks. Check out the Barnes & Noble College Bookstore Scholarship and the Live Más Scholarship programs.

These, among other tuition-saving tips, can make or break your college career. You, an online student, can also advocate for affordable textbooks. Think about raising awareness through campus campaigns, supporting the use of OER, and working with professors. You can also support policy initiatives on and off campus.