Online alternatives to pricey college textbooks could help low-income students as skyrocketing book costs disproportionately affect those from poorer families, educators told Al Jazeera.
For wealthy students, buying textbooks is an annoyance at worst, but for low-income students, those extra fees can be the difference between a diploma and no diploma.
But with the advent of affordable online textbooks, “it doesn’t matter if they’re a wealthy student at a private university or a first-generation student at a community college,” Karen Collins, emeritus professor at Lehigh University’s College of Business and Economics, said.
Collins, who writes online finance textbooks, was the first college graduate in her family and now works at a prestigious private college. Having seen both sides of the coin, she believes that the ability to access affordable alternatives to expensive hard copies is an equality issue.
A college degree is a major indicator of future income, according to recent studies, with social effects that often span generations. In recent years, textbook costs have soared, creating another obstacle for low-income students hoping to earn a degree.
Textbook prices have risen 82 percent over the last decade, three times higher than the natural inflation rate, according to U.S. PIRG, a consumer interest group.
Community college students paid on average $3,264 in tuition, but $1,270 for books and supplies — roughly the same cost for a private school where average tuition is $30,000, according to Matt Reichman, spokesman for Flat World Knowledge, an online textbook company working to increase college access and affordability.
While a typical hard copy college textbook can soar to $200, students can get access to an online version for around $25 with companies like Flat World.
"In an age of increased access to education, the prohibitive cost of textbooks still remains a huge barrier to entry into high education for lower-income students," Chris Etesse, CEO of Flat World Knowledge, said.
Etesse said while lower tuition is offered by in-state schools and community colleges, there is no corresponding low-cost alternative for textbooks.
“The educational industry is in flux, and textbooks are a part of that. If I need to study, I can go online — I don’t need to go to the hard copies,” Collins said. “Students are more comfortable reading online, and want to be able to access the information wherever they are, on iPhones or iPads. Eventually you take the boxes of books you took home every semester and throw them away.”
While online alternatives have become more common over the past few years, a recent report showed that high textbook costs still deter students from purchasing assigned materials.
Sixty-five percent of students surveyed in a recent report by U.S. PIRG said they didn’t buy a book because it was too expensive. The report — “Fixing the broken textbook market” — said nearly half of respondents said the high costs of textbooks influenced how many classes they took each semester.
“If they don’t have a book, they don’t do well, and they take it over again,” Collins said. “It’s like going fishing without a fishing pole.”
The rising costs of textbooks are often arbitrary, critics say, with major publishers often creating new editions in an attempt to beat the used book market. Instructors unwittingly add to the costs, by requiring multiple textbooks for one course while often using only a few selections from the additional books.
“Let’s help everyone go to college. Let’s not put barriers in there that are unnecessary,” Collins said. “Low-income students deserve the same chance as someone with a trust fund.”