College Textbooks: The Need For a New Approach

Posted by Nicole Cimo on August 19, 2015

Since 1978, college textbook prices have grown 945%, increasing 3.5x times faster than the Consumer Price Index. Administrators, faculty, and students are increasingly concerned about the escalating cost of textbooks. Colleges are now searching for new solutions to lower costs and support their core mission of educating students.


Recent studies have shown that many students are opting not to buy textbooks for at least one of their courses due to these high prices, leading to students being less prepared for class, and negatively impacting their academic performance. Left unchecked, these factors may undermine the fundamental mission of many colleges and universities.

According to Naomi Baron, Executive Director of the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning at American University, faculty members and students are in a predicament over how to handle high textbook costs. In her recent article, A Smarter Approach to College Textbooks, she goes deep into this concern, as well as spotlights how students are opting to do away with purchasing or renting textbooks all together.

The article also makes some interesting suggestions on how to start addressing these issues, and the need for collaboration across faculty, students, administrators, and textbook publishers. We also think that the college bookstore service should play a key role in driving this collaboration across all campus stakeholders, and facilitating a win-win solution for each institution.

The good news for students is that many institutions across the country have acknowledged that solving the challenge of providing affordable textbooks is a key priority. In fact, a growing number of institutions have already taken action and are starting to see positive results in saving students money, improving bookstore utilization, and increasing student satisfaction. To learn more about best practices these institutions have implemented, download any of our free white papers or register today for a personalized 1:1 discussion


Topics: Commentary

What we can learn from UMass Amherst’s decision to select Amazon as its bookstore provider

Posted by John Squires on January 14, 2015

This week the University of Massachusetts’ flagship Amherst campus selected Amazon to provide textbooks and other learning materials for students beginning this fall.

This is a bold move from a major university. It recognizes that textbooks are a major and increasing expense for students, adding to the already growing problem of student debt. If these rising costs are not quickly addressed this will ultimately have a material impact on student performance and retention.

It also recognizes today’s students demand for transparency, value and convenience with everything they purchase. They want to know that they are buying the right product, at the right price, and want to place their order quickly, across any device, at any time.

There are few companies in the college bookstore business that focus on student value and we are delighted to welcome Amazon to this list. We think this development should raise the question of student value and service for every college administrator who faces mounting student complaints about the cost of their learning materials and is concerned about their bookstore sales declining.

We are delighted to see UMass at the forefront of this movement. Similar to forward thinking Akademos partners like the City Colleges of Chicago, Davenport University and John Jay College, UMass understands that students are already moving online to seek value and in order to align the goals of the institution, they needed to pick an innovative bookstore provider to meet the future needs of its students.

Here are a few specifics of what colleges can learn from the UMass decision:

  • UMass has chosen to view providing textbooks and course materials as a core service to its students, opting to take only a small commission of 2.5% on sales. This is a welcome development in a market where school commissions can often run above 10%, directly contributing to the increasing cost of books for students. UMass has prioritized the success of its students over retail profits.
  • The college separated the sale of merchandise and apparel from the sale of textbooks. Students will not be forced to pay steep prices for books to support the sale of other materials on campus.

Here are other important factors for colleges and universities to consider, based upon our 15 years of providing high-quality service to students across the country –

  • State of the art textbook adoption tools and a customer service staff that can provide personalized solutions to faculty on book selections and course material fulfillment is a critical component of the successful bookstore operation of the future.
  • Faculty having access to the full electronic catalog of learning products from publishers is also important. As instructional labs and testing resources build online it’s critical that the library of products for any bookstore moves well beyond the textbook.
  • Seamless financial aid integration is a must. Combining an easy to use, customized shopping experience for students with financial aid is the winning formula to bring students back to a school sanctioned bookstore website and purchasing all their course materials in a timely manner.

We think this is a wonderful development for higher education. It is squarely a student-focused decision and any institution that follows this lead, whether with Amazon, Akademos, or another like company, will be putting the needs of educating students first. In the end, this is good for education and great for companies like Akademos that focus single-mindedly on reducing costs for students and improving service for educators.

To learn more about expanding affordable textbook options for students at your school we would be happy to set-up a personalized 1:1 consultation.

Topics: Commentary

Lower the Cost of College Operations or Else: Ideas on Preparing for Digital Textbook Delivery

Posted by John Squires on June 25, 2014

The higher education conference season is in full effect. I attended an ed tech conference called UBTech held by University Business magazine earlier this month in Orlando, Florida. This was my first time attending UBTech, having formerly mainly focused on the CampusTech conference. UBTech had a good mix of college and university chief technology officers, chief information officers, chief financial officers, and similar roles. It also attracted ed tech companies, textbook publishers, bookstore services providers, and other organizations in the industry.

A central theme in Orlando this year was reducing college operating costs to manage net revenue. Speakers called out that the higher education business model and delivery system appears broken. Particularly at those institutions that are struggling with revenue generation. Why do we continue to push a traditional college delivery model in areas where technology is clearly positioned to disrupt (yes, it is overused, but you get the idea) business-as-usual? For my part, I spoke at a session about trends in bookstore services and textbook delivery. My session attracted a diverse mix of college CTOs, CIOs and CFOs, as well as publishers, our textbook rental partners CampusBookRentals, and some friendly competition by way of bookstore service operators like Follett and Rafter.

The data I presented contrasted how college technology officers and financial officers see the future of the college bookstore. For example, while only 18% of college business officers in our textbook delivery survey stated college bookstores will sell textbooks completely via their online store, 95% of college technology officers we (more informally) surveyed at UBTech see the future of textbooks as delivered completely in an online bookstore. Now, given we were at a tech conference, I am not surprised. But the technology folks also noted they are 'not so much' involved in decisions about the bookstore. Which leads me to the question, Why are our CTOs and CIOs not more involved in the selection of bookstore service operators and strategies?

I usually approach conferences as an opportunity to listen. I might come prepared with a leading question or a thesis I am trying to get feedback on. This year, it was definitely about asking how involved college CTOs and CIOs are in textbook delivery and bookstore services. But also, and perhaps more nuanced, how much do they want to be involved, to be included in the textbook dialogue?

Those that attended our UBTech session were self-selected in that they chose to attend a session about bookstore services, so with that, are telling us they want to be more involved. But overall at the conference, most tech folks I spoke with shared that they were somewhat neutral on the topic of bookstore services. But they were quick to offer that online delivery is the way to go. In my session’s group discussion, the majority of schools shared that they have brick-and-mortar components to their textbook sales process. They also said that one of the biggest drivers to building out bookstores in the future is the eventual adoption of digital texts by students and faculty. Our contemporary at Follett estimated that number at an average of 10%, while Rafter and CampusBookRenters had less information on digital text adoption, likely because the rental market focuses more on physical textbook delivery. Everyone from vendors to schools agreed that eTextbook adoption was doubling each year, though still at small numbers.

But if eBook adoption is doubling year-over-year at colleges, when eTextbooks do indeed reach the tipping point, the mass adoption of digital texts by college students will happen "fast and furiously" (to quote the keynote speaker...more on that in a minute). The colleges and universities in my session said this was one of their biggest concerns—they want to be prepared when 'digital happens.' So while competition by third party sites selling textbooks (such as Amazon) was a dominant concern for CFOs, digital textbook adoption was the clear driving issue for our information technology officers.

Now on to that keynote address I mentioned. The opening keynote was delivered by Gene Wade, co-founder and CEO of UniversityNow, was well received. I’d heard of UniversityNow before but didn't really know what they did. Here is the gist:

  • UniversityNow identify themselves as a social venture whose mission it is to ensure that a quality higher education is available to people everywhere. They manage Patten University and New Charter University, both online institutions serving predominantly working adults and offering course delivery within a somewhat new paradigm. For example, one set of instructors teaches you, while a different set grades you (anonymously). Tuition is based on how long it takes to complete your program (typically about 2-3K a semester for as many classes as you can muster). Learning is self-paced. Exams aren't "unlocked" until students can show within the LMS that they have mastered the skill sets needed to pass them. Classes are held completely online. Course materials are digital.
  • Mr. Wade shared that MOOCs have made going to school online "sexier," but that they are not addressing the market need (eg., a call center employee who is getting left behind because he or she does not have a bachelor's degree; and needs a convenient, affordable degree that represents key learning competencies learned). According to the speaker, UniversityNow's flagship school, Patten University, costs 11x less than a 4-year private school. At some schools, cost of operation, of delivery, is higher than net tuition coming in. His point was that we need to lower the cost of delivery or else.
  • His most powerful message? That five years from now, most colleges and universities will be dealing with "the wreckage." Schools like UniversityNow are happening (as its namesake suggests) now. His metaphor...the rest of world will go straight to cell phones while 'old schools' will be dealing with their outdated land-line systems. And, of course, what is that cost of that?

If college bookstore administrators want to be ready for the move to online textbook delivery, they might consider the parallels of planning for online course delivery. The MOOCs and SOOCs are indeed coming. If schools can equate online course delivery with online textbook delivery, and maybe capitalize on the popularity (and hysteria) of MOOCs in order to frame the strategies for digital textbook delivery, we think they can be well prepared to build an innovative yet practical vision for the college bookstore of the future.


Topics: Webinars & Events, Commentary

Should College Bookstores Sell Books?

Posted by John Squires on April 30, 2013

You may have seen the recent post on the Akademos blog summarizing outcomes from our survey of college and university CFOs about textbook trends and bookstore services practices. Many of our findings were not a surprise—such as the idea that students are leaving the college bookstore to shop at third-party retailers because of perceived better pricing. Others were a bit confounding—like the desire to offer students lower-cost textbooks, while simultaneously hesitating to sell textbooks from anywhere but brick-and-mortar college bookstores.

As college administrators search for the right direction regarding bookstore operations, I think lessons from changes in the trade bookstore business are worth considering in this discussion of how college bookstores may evolve. Today’s trade book consumer is fiercely value-conscious, and the brick-and-mortar bookstore business has been revolutionized by the selection, price, and speed of delivery offered by online retailers. Local bookstores that have survived have done so by offering unique services and products not readily available from online sellers.

Are college students any less concerned about value? A recent article published by The Chronicle of Higher Education ("Students Get Savvier About Textbook Buying") shows that students are also diligent bargain-hunters. We see little evidence that college bookstores are adapting quickly to this challenge of providing superior value to their students. In fact, the trends we see from examining RFPs and college bookstore contracts suggest the opposite.

Bookstore contracts are too frequently awarded to service providers who promise double-digit commissions to schools, or multi-million dollar capital commitments to rebuild student centers or other campus facilities. Yet aren't students the ones really paying for these high-cost contract commitments? And what of the corresponding business practices resulting from these agreements that conflict with the mission of higher education?

Here are a few consequences that give us concern:

  • Financial aid dollars are tied to use at the college bookstore, so students face the dilemma of using out-of-pocket funds to purchase low-cost textbooks outside the college bookstore, or running up their already high debt burden by overpaying for their course materials in their college bookstore.
  • Custom textbooks that offer little incremental value beyond the standard editions are developed in a coordinated effort between publishers, faculty, and bookstore operators. These books are often priced extremely high, and their exclusive availability in the college bookstores thwarts students from renting or purchasing used editions of these textbooks elsewhere.

We think it’s time to focus on how this cycle impacts student outcomes and drives up the cost of education, particularly with regard to attrition. It is estimated that "as many as one in three [students] frequently opt not to purchase required academic materials due to cost" (National Survey of Student Engagement, 2012). We know that for many community college students, the cost of learning materials can be as much as the cost of tuition. How is this cycle burdening schools with unintended costs from poorly prepared and under-performing students who don’t persist to completion?

It is only a matter of time before colleges must actively consider more efficient ways of meeting their students’ needs through alternative textbook and course material delivery platforms. If it is possible to provide complete availability of course materials, a robust used and rental marketplace, and access to free teaching materials like Open Educational Resources, then why are college administrators not more engaged in exploring alternatives to stocking textbooks in their physical stores?

In the end, we see the conversation about textbook costs as moving into a broader circle, involving the college CFO, provost, and president. College presidents have not been fully engaged in considering how schools meet this critical student need more efficiently. But since they are also under enormous pressure to cut costs and improve educational outcomes, the day when college presidents turn their attention to this key piece of student performance is surely close at hand.

We will soon share a comparable survey of college presidents and provosts to explore how their impressions of the issues raised here compare to those who, understandably, are primarily focused on the financial interests of their schools.

To learn more, sign up for our textbook delivery and bookstore services alerts.

Topics: Commentary

Welcome to Textbook Affordability Month

Posted by John Squires on January 30, 2013


The Chronicle of Higher Education released a four part series on textbooks this week:

  • Students Get Savvier About Textbook Buying, When They Buy at All
  • Don't Call Them Textbooks
  • For Many Students, Print Is Still King
  • Can Textbooks Ever Really Be Free?

It is February, after all--the season of textbook adoption! Faculty across the US are rushing to their computers as we speak to search, discover, compare and adopt their course materials for the Fall 2013 term. So it truly is a good time to spotlight textbook affordability.

Back to The Chronicle. While all of the articles they published relate to our business here at Akademos and TextbookX.com, student-buying habits are especially of interest. In Students Get Savvier About Textbook Buying, When They Buy at All, The Chronicle "talked with students and found that having more choices in how to get books hasn't solved the main problem: cost." Among the workarounds--not buying texts at all (as 1/3 of seniors and 1/4 of freshmen reported not having done), and stealing in the form of pirating texts.

I'm not the first to say we are in a sad state of affairs when students are not buying textbooks at all, or stealing them; or when the cost of textbooks is more than the cost of a course. While I think students need to better educate themselves about the total cost of an education, there must be more we can do, especially to help our under-represented students, our financially-challenged students, and our community college students.

I think what is most frustrating, and comments posted on The Chronicle webpage underneath the article allude to this, is that the conversation keeps going round and round, with little appearance of reaching a solution. Now, I know this is not so--I have personally seen actions on the part of many schools, CFO's, Provosts, faculty, and both not-for-profit and for-profit companies--to help bring visibility and action to this problem. But, we all need to do more.

What if every key stakeholder did one thing, right now, to help make textbooks more affordable for our students? Can't we gather for a call to action? A call to service? Do we need to name a month, a day, in order to remind us? Then let's do it. I hereby declare February "National Textbook Affordability Month". Should we pick a day too--like the don't buy gas days? National Textbook Affordability Day is...OK, I might need some support on this one people.

So to throw my 10 cents into the ring, here are my top recommendations to help fix the 'cost' problem of textbooks:

  1. Schools need more used book inventory - Contrary to a point made in the article, an increase in the supply of used books helps decrease costs for students. Especially if the used books are available from national sources, not just local ones.
  2. Students and their families should comparison shop - Students should always check prices as they would for other items they buy. A good comparison widget is www.campusbooks.com and, of course, a quick plug for our own TextbookX.com.
  3. Administrators - Can consider new business models aimed at lowering the cost of textbooks for students (and forgo margins on course materials).
  4. Governments - Should follow California's example of developing Open Educational Resource materials for top core courses. Florida has done some important work on this too.
  5. Last but by no means least, faculty can do some comparisons of their own--they can consider the cost of textbooks and other course materials very seriously in their textbook adoptions. One tool we developed to help faculty do this is our textbook adoption tool (yes, it is a plug, but it is a free website open to any faculty).

So what did I do today to help textbook affordability (besides huffing and puffing through this blog)? I finished a white paper summarizing what college CFO's think about textbooks, especially their costs; and, I tested a new feature of our Akademos Textbook Adoption Tool due to launch any day now, which will rank schools by the affordability of their textbooks. I know it is not much, but it is something. Stay tuned.

What did you do today to help textbook affordability?

Topics: Textbook Affordability, Commentary

The eTextbook Bust

Posted by Brian Jacobs on September 24, 2012

The final report on a major digital textbook pilot appeared recently and, because I wanted to study the document closely, mark it up with scribble unintelligible to anyone but its author, I immediately printed it out. And as I did that, I felt strangely self-conscious of the act, as if I were prejudicing the report's conclusions before turning a page.

The pilot, which took place in the spring of this year and included Cornell, Indiana University at Bloomington, and the Universities of Minnesota, Virginia, and Wisconsin at Madison, was pretty close to a complete failure. Certainly there are nuggets of encouragement but these were far outnumbered by student criticisms. One could almost sense the report’s authors straining to put the best face on the results. It’s admirable that they did not flinch from conveying students’ frustrations and disappointments with the reading materials, but the results really were worse than their concluding comments suggest.

Nowhere, for example, do the authors tell us that the pilot was financially artificial. They tell us that in all but one case—Indiana—students were actually given free access to the eTextbooks, yet this subsidy doesn’t weigh in their conclusions. Instead, we learn that the number one reason why students had any interest at all in using the eTexts is because of they were “lower cost.” Really? Low costs implies some cost and the fact that they actually had no cost only serves to make the result look better than they are. For if price is the major motivation for students, as they conclude, moving from "free" to even "low cost" will only increase resistance to their use.

The finding that cost was the top motivator for students is itself deeply problematic, not only for those heralding digital textbooks as a learning advancement, but also for commercial publishers who are striving to preserve the legacy cost structures of physical books as they turn to digital. Price alone is rarely a sufficient condition for a technological change and I don’t expect it will be one here. Instead, a panoply of learning benefits will need to accompany the economic one if digital materials are to come into their own.

The student survey results make clear that this is still some way off. Did use of an eTextbook increase engagement with course content? 21% said either “quite a bit” or “a great deal.” 35% said “somewhat” and 45% said “a little” or “not at all.” What about allowing students “to better organize and structure [student] learning”? About 25% of students thought it did. The rest, not so much. In question after question—from whether eTextbooks inspired students to read more to whether they even valued their own digital highlighting and annotations—the results are almost uniformly negative. One wonders what students would have said if they actually had to pay for the privilege.

Interestingly, the lead research finding is that only a minority of students—12%--elected to purchase physical copies. This is, however, hardly a comforting statistic for the proponents of this digital model. First, the choice for students was not likely between a free digital and a low cost print alternative, but between a free version and an expensive one (as a standard commercial textbook). Second, the 12% figure is misleading since it implies that the universe of student purchasers is 100%; but, those in the industry know that 100% sell-through is never an option unless the materials are included in the course fees. Instead, most people believe that about 1/3 of students do not buy textbooks. They borrow, share, photocopy, or simply try to do without. Remove those students from the pool of possible student buyers and it turns out that more than 18% of students who buy textbooks would have purchased a print copy if they were part of this study. Given the huge price disparity between the two options, and that price is the primary motivator, this is not supporting evidence.

Do the results of the pilot leave me pessimistic about digital course materials? Not at all. What they underscore, instead, is that several developments need still to occur for digital materials to demonstrate their pedagogical superiority over print text (for if they don’t have this what’s really the purpose?).

First, as I noted in a blog post this May, digital interactivity needs to match or exceed the physical interactivity that students enjoy. That’s not simply a matter of offering the capability to make digital highlights and annotations—which invariably feel like inadequate imitations of the real thing—but instead offering interactivity that simply isn’t available in the print world. And central to accomplishing this is faculty involvement. One of the few bright spots in the study is that students’ appreciation for the digital version shot up considerably when faculty were offering their own annotations and highlights in the texts. The problem was that few faculty actually did this. A successful digital initiative will be one in which the faculty are strongly committed to active participation in working with the course materials--when the course materials act not as passive appendages to classroom teaching but rather as direct extensions of that teaching itself; when they are less interchangeable commodities and more directly reflective of the learning environment itself (the institution or the classroom).

Second, conventional thinking about digital rights management (DRM) has to change. As a general rule, the tighter the DRM restrictions, the less appealing the technology from the user’s standpoint. In the case of digital textbooks, it likely precludes mainstream adoption. Expiration dates, and strict limitations on printing, sharing, and remixing content, are all dissuasive to students and faculty.

Third, lower pricing is not a sufficient condition for technological change--but it is a necessary one. By itself, an alternative price structure will not usher in a new era; but, there’s no doubt that it will be a critical ingredient to such change. Look at the success of the Kindle. Price discounts have been important, but if the Kindle didn’t also provide a satisfying experience for general readers, those discounts would have been irrelevant (and, in fact, the discounts were irrelevant in Amazon’s own failed pilot pairing the device with digital textbooks).

It’s uncertain whether commercial publishers have the will and the ability to change their business models sufficiently to meet these new needs. While they continue to experiment with institutionally-direct distribution models (and this digital textbook pilot is an example of that), there’s still little evidence to suggest that it represents the required fundamental change in thinking regarding DRM and costs. The lack of publisher movement in these areas has created an opening for alternative models, especially Open Educational Resources, to emerge that are now challenging the commercial model. But these alternatives have demonstrated no ability to address anything beyond cost. As such, open texts may be successfully adopted in classrooms, but they will not in their present state inspire mainstream use of digital learning materials.

What this e-textbook study and others like it tell us is that the technology of the textbook--with its physical interactivity, rich graphics, and tactile experience--raises the digital transition threshold for study materials well beyond what it is for general reading books. And that’s probably a good thing, for when the transition comes (and it will) it should be one that fundamentally changes not only course materials but the very relations of teacher, student, and text.


Topics: Commentary