In Students' Minds, Textbooks Are Increasingly Optional Purchases

July 09, 2015

The average amount that college students spend on course materials appears to be declining. But not necessarily because textbooks are cheaper. A growing number of students, surveys show, simply skip buying required course materials.

A survey of undergraduates on 23 campuses by the National Association of College Stores, expected to be released on Thursday, found that students spent an average of $563 on course materials during the 2014-15 academic year, compared with $638 the year before.

The decrease is due in part to the rise of textbook-rental programs, which cost less, association officials note. But of those students who did not buy textbooks, the report noted, a greater percentage than in the past said it was because "they believed them to be unnecessary."

Another recent survey of college students, by the Book Industry Study Group, found a similar change in attitude, says Nadine Vassallo, a project manager for the group. "Students say, We see the materials as recommendations rather than requirements," she explains.

A separate survey of professors on the same campuses, meanwhile, found that they almost never see the course materials as optional. "What we think is happening is students are waiting to see how much the material is used before they buy them," Ms. Vassallo says.

In most courses, students are still assigned paper textbooks. Many are available in digital form as well, but print is still preferred by most students, according to the group’s survey.

Publishers are pushing a new model, called an "integrated learning system," in which students buy access to an online system that mixes reading materials, multimedia, and quiz and homework tools. Because access to the system is required in order to turn in assignments, everyone pays up. About 11 percent of students reported being assigned integrated learning systems during the past academic year, says Ms. Vassallo.

Publishers see enough promise in the systems that they don’t even call themselves textbook publishers anymore. "They now see themselves as technology companies," says Ms. Vassallo.

College bookstores also no longer like to identify themselves with textbooks. Many are changing their names to versions of "campus store."

Correction (7/9/2015, 11:10 a.m.): A quotation from the report by the National Association of College Stores has been added to clarify the nature of the change in students' buying habits.

Jeffrey R. Young writes about technology in education and leads a team exploring new story formats. Follow him on Twitter @jryoung; check out his home page,; or try him by email at