e-Books Help Cure Prohibitive Cost of College Textbooks

ebook reader

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According to a June 2013 Government Accountability Office report, textbook prices rose more than 80% between 2002 and 2012. That was approximately three times the rate of inflation, and is one of the reasons that college education has become too expensive for many young people. That’s why many students, educators, and educational industry observers believe that the future of academic textbooks must involve an innovative shift into digital media versus conventional printed texts.

The change was predicted by an article that appeared in Cornell’s own student newspaper in 2011, where spokespersons for the campus book store explained that sales of conventional textbooks had plummeted by more than 20% over the prior four years. Students were migrated away from heavy, costly texbooks in favor of easily portable e-books that were, on average, 45% cheaper. Margie Whiteleather, the store’s Strategic Projects Manager, explained that “Students are beginning to feel that they can get by without textbooks in many classes.”

A year later, as reported by the New York Times, five major universities implemented a pilot program that involved purchasing electronic textbooks. The five schools, the University of California, Cornell University, the University of Virginia, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Wisconsin – did so to save students money and to enhance the delivery of course materials by making it computer-compatible.

Enhanced electronic delivery, as any student who has every humped a backpack or shoulder bag full of college textbooks can tell you, is also better for your physical health. With books weighing pounds, not ounces, it is common for students to develop chronically debilitating back problems just from hauling their textbooks back and forth to class. Some colleges even publish safety tips to help students avoid pulled muscles, misaligned spines, and other aches and pains that can contribute to chiropractor bills. An e-book reader, by contrast, will likely tip the scales at a fraction of the weight of a single bulky textbook. Most of them weigh about a half a pound or less, in fact, which is approximately the same weight as a small bottle of drinking water. Electricity weighs a lot less than paper, and you can generate lots of pages of electronic books without cutting down any trees – which makes e-books a healthier alternative for your lower back and for Mother Earth.

Most major universities put considerable parts of their libraries online decades ago, so this is a trend that’s been building momentum for a while. Since the experimental study at those five campuses was conducted back in 2012, advancements in technology have fueled a seismic shift toward electronic books of all kinds, all over the world. So it is no wonder that a report on CNBC in 2013 reiterated that the nearly $14 billion textbook industry, for both higher education and K-12, is definitely moving in the digital direction.

That’s a step in the right direction, based on a January 2014  article in the online publication Inside Higher Ed that explains how rising textbook prices hinder students.  Sixty-five percent of students cited in studies describe in the article said they had opted not to take a class because the textbooks were too expensive, and nearly 95%  – and 94 percent of them were worried that their grades would suffer because of this phenomenon.


Leading the move to the new frontier are young people who are embracing digital technology with a passion. Almost 70% of high school students surveyed for the Pearson Foundation believe that traditional textbooks will be phased out in the next few years, and the majority of college kids who were polled expressed a preference for reading digital textbooks over printed ones for their classes. The Pearson Foundation is one of the publishers paying attention to those preferences and attitudes. The organization used to refer to itself as a publisher of textbooks, for instance, but now defines itself as a “digital learning and services company.”

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