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Many students say the price of course materials factors into big decisions about their academic careers, such as major, minor and even institution choice, according to a new survey.

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Annual spending on college course materials fell to a decade low last academic year, due in large part to the continuing shift toward digital materials. But a new study finds that college students remain concerned about course materials’ prices and that many attempt to cut costs in ways that may undermine their academic success.

The report, released today by Affordable Learning PA, the Partnership for Academic Library Collaboration and Innovation, and Bay View Analytics, is based on a recent survey yielding more than 4,300 responses from mostly four-year college students across 14 Pennsylvania institutions. While focused on Pennsylvania, the authors surveyed a comparison group of 500 students from outside the state to paint a picture that is largely nationally representative—and troubling.

“The surprise is how many aspects of students’ lives are impacted and the proportion of students impacted” by course materials’ prices, says Jeff Seaman, director of Bay View Analytics, which also tracks the growing awareness and adoption of open educational resources through annual surveys of faculty members and administrators. “There’s a systemic problem here that needs to be addressed because it’s impacting student success rates broadly.”

Here are five takeaways from the report based on Pennsylvania students’ survey responses.

  1. Almost all students are responsible for funding some or all of their course materials.

Three in five respondents say all their current courses require them to purchase materials. Over half of respondents report that course materials cost them at least $200 per academic term. A four-course load costs students approximately $360, on average. The average per-course materials cost is $90.

The majority of respondents receive financial aid, but just 13 percent say this aid covers half or more of their materials costs. In the current academic term, just 4 percent of students say they paid nothing out of pocket for course materials.

  1. Most students worry about course materials costs.

More than four in five (81 percent) students report being worried to some degree about meeting course materials’ costs. Nearly half of students say their worry is moderate or extreme. Groups reporting disproportionately high levels of worry include Black students, Hispanic students, women, students who work off-campus full-time and Pell Grant recipients.

While in-state students’ responses were mostly comparable to those of students nationally, Pennsylvania students’ overall level of worry is 11 percentage points higher than the national sample. Pennsylvania students also report twice the level of extreme worry. Perhaps relatedly, 40 percent of Pennsylvania students report no financial aid coverage for materials, much higher than the 17 percent reported nationally. Jeff Seaman and his co-author, Julia Seaman, aren’t exactly sure why this is, but they guess that Pennsylvania includes relatively more students at private institutions than in the national sample.

Bay View Analytics is sharing individual institutions’ data with leaders so that they can better understand how students on their particular campuses are impacted by course materials prices. The project is also making available the survey instrument for additional institutions in or outside Pennsylvania to use for this purpose. More on the Pennsylvania Course Materials Cost Survey is available here.

  1. Materials costs impact students’ academic choices.

Many students report earning poor grades or reducing the number of courses they registered for because of high course-material prices, while just 23 percent say such prices have no impact on their academic career. Many also say that course materials’ prices factor into other decisions about their academic careers, such as a major and minor choice: some 61 percent of students say course materials’ prices impacted their choice of institution to attend, 31 percent say it impacted their choice of major and 16 percent say it impacted their choice of minor.

About a third each of students also say they’ve done the following due to high materials costs: earned a poor grade, gone without materials or not registered for a course. Some 15 percent of students also say they’ve withdrawn from a course due to high materials costs.

  1. Almost all students try to reduce materials costs.

Half of students report trying five or more ways to lower their costs. Cost-cutting measures include buying used copies, sharing with classmates, using earlier editions, finding free versions online, buying only the chapters needed and renting a digital copy. Nearly all (98 percent) students have tried at least one method of reducing costs, from buying a used copy to finding materials online to going without the materials entirely.

  1. Preferences are mixed on digital versus print.

Some 40 percent of students prefer print materials, while 18 percent prefer digital or electronic. More than a third say it depends. Just 6 percent have no preference on medium. As for students’ preferences for obtaining course materials, 53 percent prefer access codes (also called day-one programs) and 26 percent prefer no access code (the rest have no preference).

The new survey builds on the separate Virginia Course Materials Survey and the Florida Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey. The majority of Pennsylvania respondents are evenly split across class year. More than four in five respondents are full-time, taking at least four courses. Some 44 percent of the sample is majoring in STEM fields, while health, business, education and psychology majors make up most of the rest.

The new survey echoes findings on how students think about course materials from the Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse Student Voice survey from earlier this year on course materials. That survey found:

  • Fifty-two percent of students over all prefer a mix of digital and physical course materials, 31 percent prefer digital materials and 17 percent prefer physical materials.
  • Students’ top three preferences for obtaining course materials are: finding a digital version for free (54 percent), ordering a used copy from Amazon or other online store (28 percent), and renting a digital copy (25 percent). Just 16 percent of Student Voice respondents prefer to buy a new copy, physical or digital, from the campus store, and even fewer students prefer to buy new materials online or at a local bookstore. 
  • Half of Student Voice respondents say they’ve avoided purchasing or renting a book for a class, with students at private institutions most likely to say this (57 percent, versus 50 percent of students at publics). 
  •  Just 30 percent of the survey’s 3,004 two- and four-year college respondents believe their professors take affordability into account when choosing course materials. 

Elizabeth Nelson, a reference and instruction librarian at Penn State Lehigh Valley and a member of the Affordable Learning PA Steering Committee, says that her organization’s survey data will be “incredibly helpful for higher education institutions working toward both greater affordability and greater equity for students, in Pennsylvania and beyond. These findings will help us better contextualize ongoing efforts, so we can reduce costs for students, give faculty more control over course materials, and help students stay enrolled in college.”

How are you helping students struggling to pay for course materials on your campus? Tell us.

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