Fact vs. Fiction: 7 Truths about College Course Materials

You’ve seen the headlines: “The cost of a college education is soaring!” “Course materials have never been more expensive!” “Textbook producers take advantage of our students!”

Yes, these headlines may be sensational, but they’re not entirely accurate. While college can be expensive, students aren’t helpless victims crushed by debt from buying textbooks. Instead, they’re savvy consumers to whom education companies cater. Below are seven fictions — and the corresponding facts — about college course materials.

Fiction: The cost of college textbooks and course materials is a major contributor to student debt.

Fact: Books and supplies account for just four percent of college costs. Students’ primary expenses are tuition (43 percent) and boarding (40 percent).

Fiction: The cost of course materials is climbing.

Fact: Student spending on course materials has declined nearly 20 percent since the 2007-2008 school year and nearly 12 percent since 2013-2014, according to Student Watch data. New digital learning platforms, which use interactive techniques to help students master course concepts, have also helped reduce costs.

Fiction: College course materials are unaffordable for the average student.

Fact: Students can save money on textbooks in a variety of ways. Online resources such as CourseSmart offer digital titles at up to 60 percent below the hardcover price. Other money-saving options include purchasing eChapters, loose-leaf editions, black-and-white editions and print-it-yourself editions.

Fiction: The reason that new editions of course materials are released so often is to increase publisher profits.

Fact: Course materials in many fields — especially medicine, law and accounting — are updated periodically to reflect changes in regulations, technology and methods. Instructors want course materials to be as current as possible to ensure students can apply their knowledge to real-world situations.

Fiction: Since Open Educational Resources (OER) are free, they will eventually replace purchased textbooks.

Fact: While free to students, OER are not free to create, since they must be developed, formatted and regularly revised. Commercial producers and open-source publishers often work together to provide effective, affordable course materials. However, producing materials for a single course can cost anywhere from $500,000 to $3 million. Increasingly, OER publishers are trying to transfer these costs to students and taxpayers.

Fiction: Students with print-related disabilities — including blindness and dyslexia — don’t have access to the course materials they need.

Fact: Access is improving, thanks to programs like the AccessText Network. Founded and supported by the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and leading education companies, they are working to ensure that students are not limited by disability when accessing and using course materials. Students should visit their colleges’ Disabled Student Services office for information about participating.

Fiction: Students don’t really need the course materials to pass the class.

Fact: Course materials are a key component of academic success. Academic improvement from using digital course materials and traditional textbooks is as high as 79 percent.