A recent study shows that 65 percent of U.S. college students report having not bought a textbook because of its high price. Worse still, 94 percent of those foregoing textbook purchases worried that doing so would hurt their grades, with half admitting to being significantly concerned about their grades as a result.

Another disturbing consequence of skyrocketing textbook prices is how those costs can influence which courses students select. Courses with expensive textbooks can deter students who have a genuine interest in enrolling—potentially to the detriment of their degree.

Textbooks outpacing inflation

Many textbook publishers rapidly publish new editions, with prices increasing at a rate that outpaces inflation. According to a study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, textbook prices have increased by over 1,000 percent since 1977.

“As costs have risen, we have seen course material cost become a significant barrier to student retention and completion,” notes Jason Lorgan, executive director of campus recreation and unions at the University of California, Davis. “Students are increasingly finding work-arounds that are not working—like putting off buying materials or choosing not to buy course materials at all.”

Class background matters

Student background understandably figures into the decisions students make when purchasing textbooks. The higher the family income of the student, the more new textbooks they purchase versus used.

According to one survey, students with family incomes of less than $45,000 purchased a mean of 1.25 new textbooks, compared to students from families with annual incomes of more than $150,000, who purchased 1.83 new textbooks per semester.

Possible solutions

One solution is offering free, open digital alternatives to buying hard copy textbooks; 82 percent of students feel they’d do “significantly better” in courses if they could freely access digital copies online.

The University of Maryland College has taken student sentiment to heart, eliminating print textbooks altogether to offer its students online materials in their place. Meanwhile, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, spent $60,000 on faculty grants to produce open textbooks. As a result, students saved roughly $1 million in total.