A survey of college students and textbook affordability during the COVID-19 pandemic


Textbooks are too expensive, and have been for a very long time. Little competition in the college publishing industry- and therefore little consumer choice – has contributed to the cost of course materials increasing at three times the rate of inflation since the 1970s. While the curve has plateaued the past couple of years, there has been little change in student experience. Students have continued to skip buying assigned course materials due to cost at similar rates. 

Then COVID-19 happened. To protect public health, educators adjusted their courses for emergency remote instruction at breakneck speed. In the spring, some publishers and education technology companies offered temporary free access to online books and homework platforms for the final few months of the spring term, but the return of full-price materials in the summer coincided with the second wave of COVID-19. An economic crisis has dovetailed the public health crisis, where youth unemployment in the summer of 2020 was double that of summer 2019 and over 8 percent higher than the general population. Any member of the campus community can tell you that the pandemic has exacerbated existing weaknesses within higher education – but how does textbook affordability factor into this difficult landscape for teaching and learning?

This national survey of more than 5,000 college students was taken in September 2020, and builds on similar surveys from 2013 and 2019. It offers a snapshot in time of student experiences, particularly those at four-year institutions, in the first full semester of the pandemic and points out more long-term problems that institutions and national leaders must work to solve. 

COVID-19 has raised the barriers students face both financially and technologically to access course materials, even if it has not necessarily made course materials more expensive. Students who lost jobs due to the pandemic or who lacked reliable internet access were hardest hit by course materials costs. These problems will persist past the public health crisis without increased funding and implementing long term policies that prioritize access and affordability.

Key Finding 1: Students continue to skip buying assigned textbooks despite concerns it will impact their grade

In 2020, 65 percent of students surveyed reported skipping buying a textbook because of cost; 63 percent skipped purchasing one during the same period the previous year. Students are still very concerned that not purchasing materials will negatively impact their grade, with 90 percent reporting being significantly or somewhat concerned in both years.

Key Finding 2: More students are skipping access codes during the pandemic

The number of students who report not buying an access code increased from 17 percent in 2019 to 21 percent in 2020. This might be driven by financial strain, or possibly an increased reliance on access codes as part of remote learning. Forgoing an access code means students miss out on homework, quizzes, and other important parts of their grade in a class. 

Key Finding 3: COVID-19 is hitting students hard and impacts course material affordability

Students were broadly impacted by the pandemic, with 79 percent of students reporting being impacted in some way (beyond, of course, largely staying at home). Those side effects of the pandemic were correlated with greater struggles to access course materials. These numbers have almost certainly risen since this survey was taken in September. For example, 11 percent of students reported being quarantined with either a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19 – and this was measured before the spike in cases that took over the country ahead of the holiday season. Furthermore, our survey is a snapshot in time for students, largely at four-year institutions, who were currently enrolled for the fall semester. Our survey likely missed out on the students who had struggled the most, who may have dropped out or transferred institutions beyond the reach of our volunteers.

Key Finding 4: Lack of reliable internet correlates with significant issues for course material access and student success

10 percent of students reported not having reliable enough internet access to participate in  remote classes. That lack of reliable internet correlated with two other important metrics. 30 percent of students without reliable internet access reported not buying an access code, compared to 21 percent for the larger sample. Furthermore, 8 percent of students without reliable internet access reported failing a class due to not being able to afford their course materials, compared to the national average of 2 percent. 

Key Finding 5: Food insecure students skip buying course materials at significantly higher rate

Students who faced food insecurity were more heavily impacted by unaffordable course materials. 82 percent of students who reported missing a meal due to the pandemic also reported skipping buying textbooks due to cost; furthermore, 38 percent reported they skipped buying an access code. The percentage of food insecure students who skipped access codes is nearly twice the national average, and an unacceptable barrier for students who already face huge challenges to completing their degree.