Students’ No. 1 Higher Education Obstacle May Surprise You

Repaying student loans is a huge concern for students after they graduate. But walking into college classrooms for the first time, a more immediate dilemma faces students: paying for their textbooks. When college students are asked about the obstacles they face in pursuit of a college education, they were quick to call out the extraordinary cost of textbooks and other educational materials required for the majority of their courses.

This past fall, New America's Education Policy program convened several focus groups across the country, consisting of students or parents of students enrolled in a bachelor’s, associate’s, or trade school programs pursuing a degree. Both groups were asked about their opinions of higher education, including what they believed about its purpose, shortcomings, and who they believed was accountable for student success. 

Students and parents alike had a lot to say about the cost of tuition and the institutions themselves, and offered policy ideas they believed could alleviate some of the things that weren’t working. But when students were asked what they thought the most problematic aspects of college were, it was the cost of textbooks that most animated the room.

Take for example, a student in Cleveland lamenting on the cost of a single textbook: “Not even looking at what [tuition] is per credit hour, I’m also going to have to buy a $500 book for this one class, do you know what I mean? You have to think about that all the time, too.” Visible frustration and agreement followed as students expressed their collective surprise and disappointment at how costly textbooks were. Another student shared how she spent nearly as much on books as she did for her entire program, stating:

“[Nursing] books were $1,600. My semester was $1,700…I mean that’s–insane.”

When the moderator asked about the most surprising thing about college, students had more to say about overpriced books. “Books...Books were the surprise. You pay $500 for a book and try to return it at the end [of the semester], you might get $12 in return.”

While some legislators and policymakers have tried to rein in the cost of textbooks, most have overlooked their role in driving up the cost of college. But it's clear why this expense is top of mind for students. Textbooks, like tuition, factor into the anticipated yearly cost of attending a college or university, known as the cost of attendance. With the help of financial aid in the form of grants, student loans, and repayment plans, even high tuition can become more manageable. But textbooks often feel different. Students are expected to purchase textbooks before or shortly after classes start, and sometimes before financial aid is disbursed. This can be a heavy burden, especially for underserved student populations with limited resources. And not being able to purchase them in a timely manner—or at all—can have devastating effects on student achievement.

Because expensive textbooks are seen as huge burdens, more should be done to lower the cost of required course materials. Some colleges and states are stepping up to the plate, using open educational resources (OER) to significantly reduce the cost for students. OER are “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.” The nursing student who spent nearly the same amount on textbooks as tuition got some relief this way:

“I had one class where the professor gave us the website where you could find the book for free: OpenStax."
OpenStax is a nonprofit that develops “high-quality, peer-reviewed textbooks that are free online and low-cost in print.”

Saving students a few hundred dollars for a single course is a good first step. However, some institutions are even further along. At a small but growing number of colleges, professors are working together to adopt OER for every course in a degree program. Tidewater Community College’s “Z-Degree” program for an associate’s degree in business administration allows students to obtain the degree without ever buying a textbook. These so-called “zero textbook cost” degree programs can significantly lower—or completely eliminate—the costs of course materials for students.

The cost of individual books can add up. The anecdote from the nursing student about paying over $1,500 in books unfortunately isn’t an anomaly. Average textbook costs at various institution types can amount to over $1,200 a year. The clear call for help from students illustrate that stronger efforts can and should continue to be made to help students and their families rein in (or even eliminate) the cost of textbooks.


Ernest Ezeugo is an administrative assistant with the Education Policy program at New America. He is a member of the higher education team.

Manuela Ekowo is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She provides research and analysis on policies related to higher education including innovations in higher education delivery, the use of technology, and ensuring equitable outcomes for underrepresented students.