Back to school 2015: How post-secondary students can fight 'grim reality' of rising textbook costs

Post-secondary students wrestling with rising tuition costs have embarked on a wide variety of ways to lessen the financial hit from getting the materials they need for their courses, and some textbook sellers are offering options they hope will be more economical.

Brock University offering 'dynamic pricing' to match online charges for materials

Brock University Campus Store student employee Trevor Szaniawski stocks the shelves with books for the fall term. Prices have been reduced for about 650 titles in the store to make them more competitive with online retailers. (Brock University)

Cate Talaue figures she's done all she can to find affordable textbooks to get herself through her post-secondary education.

"I've bought textbooks at a used bookstore," says the student, who is launching into media and communications studies for her second degree at Brock University in Ontario's Niagara Region.

"I've borrowed. I've rented. I've tried buying a textbook from Amazon."

Talaue's quest for books that would put a smaller dent in her bank account comes as students buffeted by high tuition fees also face increasing costs for textbooks, some of which can hit $200 or $300 apiece.  

Overall, the Canadian Federation of Students says textbook costs have risen by 2.44 times the rate of inflation since 2008.

"It becomes a very grim reality for a lot of young people particularly when they find that their textbooks for an entire year can cost about the same as a few classes," says federation chairperson Bilan Arte.

That scenario has pushed students like Talaue into quests for cheaper supplies and is prompting some who sell textbooks to offer options they hope will be more economical.

At Brock, that has meant turning to new computer technology to allow the Campus Store to offer "dynamic pricing" and be more competitive with online vendors such as Amazon. The store's website will show students a range of prices, including for new and used, e-book and rental costs, along with Amazon's charge.

Matching prices

"There seems to be a lot of online competition, so we thought it would be almost prudent, if not necessary, to watch what the online retailers are selling textbooks for," says store director Dan Lewis.

"With dynamic pricing, what we've been able to do is identify their prices and match them."

Brock University student Cate Talaue says she prefers a physical copy of a textook over an online version because she is able to retain more information. (Lauren Valvasori/Brock University)

After using the new technology to run a pricing algorithm that can make recommendations for price adjustments on a daily basis, the store, which now has about 800 titles in stock, lowered prices on about 650. Some went down by a dollar or two. For others, it was $40 or $50. On some titles, the store will lose money.

"We're OK with making less money on a book because we fully understand that we're going to sell more books because there'll be no motivation to buy it on an online retailer," says Lewis.

He also thinks dynamic pricing will "get us working better with our publishers, which is really one of the goals in mitigating the acquisition costs."

Students have long complained about the price of textbooks, a fact publishers say they recognize.

"We are aware of the situation students and their families are in — that they're making an incredible investment in their higher education — and how difficult it can be after you've signed up for this long-term investment to then get a credit card bill for a couple of hundred dollars from the bookstore," says Brian Belardi, director of communications for McGraw-Hill Education.  "It just seems like it's not fair."

The biggest investment in creating textbook content, Belardi says, lies in "developing the knowledge that goes into that content." For some areas — like organic chemistry, for example — that could be more expensive than others, such as an introductory history course. Size of the market for a particular subject area can also come into play.

Personal format

Belardi says McGraw-Hill is making a lot of progress looking for ways to reduce the cash register price.

The company is also rolling out a program called Connect Your Way, its main digital platform, which offers titles for about half the price of a physical textbook. The material is offered as an e-book in a "personalized adaptive format," Belardi says, with students offered a physical book "as a fallback," for costs starting at $15.

University of Alberta Students' Union vice-president, external, Dylan Hanwell, left, and president Navneet Khinda check out textbooks in the university bookstore. (Simon Yackulic/University of Alberta Students' Union)

Among  students who have gone digital, he says, only a very few have come back looking for a hard copy.

"We're interpreting that as a pretty positive response from the market," says Belardi. "One of the reasons why it's been popular with students is it's a better deal for them."

A better financial deal perhaps, but maybe not something for every student.

"In terms of my own personal study habits," says Talaue, "I prefer having the physical copy as I'm able to retain more information than having it as an online textbook."

At Brock last year, there was also a problem getting a textbook for a course. After a publisher's mix-up, students were offered the e-book version to make sure they had the material to start classes.

"We gave them the option of redeeming the e-book for a physical book when it came in," says Lewis.

After it arrived, 85 per cent of the students traded in their e-book for a hard copy.

Sharing with a friend

Campuses across Canada have a wide range of options for students to find cheaper books.

"We know that students are always looking for other ways to get around budgeting  $1,000 for textbooks," says Fahim Rahman, vice-president, academic, at the University of Alberta Students' Union.

A University of Alberta student looks for textbooks online. (Simon Yackulic/University of Alberta Students' Union)

"Sometimes they're successful and they're able to find alternative solutions on for example or they can even share a textbook a friend."

Rahim also borrowed a textbook from the library a month at a time, something he said allowed him to save a lot of money.

The students union also has a textbook consignment store — Subtitles — and is looking to move it to a higher-profile location in the students' union building.

Beyond student attempts to keep costs down, Rahman would like to see a commitment from institutions and federal and provincial governments to "help regulate how quickly these costs have been rising."

"I know we can encourage students to come up with crafty solutions to save on textbooks," he says.

"But fundamentally, textbooks are a huge barrier and it would be fantastic if we were able to get really high quality academic materials without the steep costs that are associated with paying for textbooks upfront."