Textbook prices an often overlooked education challenge – Susan Paris

Noelle DiGrazia pulled a thick, worn parcel from her bag and began to flip through the pages inside my office at Durham Technical Community College.

It wasn’t until then that I realized the behemoth hardcover was a textbook.

Noticing my surprise, DiGrazia explained that the extra-large, resealable plastic bags she carries daily help minimize the wear and tear easily committed against the rented tools she needs for education.

The bags, she said, provide a better chance at receiving a full-return on her rentals.

Let me be clear: sure, precautionary methods like DiGrazia’s exemplify the ingenuity we hope to see in our students. But it’s also a glaring example of the extremes our students go to in an effort to manage the skyrocketing costs of college textbooks.

As educators, we’re aware the cost of college has increased at an alarming rate. According to the College Board, among southern states, including North Carolina, the cost of community college has risen 41 percent within the past 10 years.

However, such discussions often focus on tuition and student fees. Textbooks, an essential instructional material, can be equally cost-prohibitive expense for paycheck-to-paycheck students.

Along with increases in the cost of overall college attendance, Student Public Interest Research Groups finds the average cost of a college textbook has increased astronomically by a staggering 73 percent in only the past decade. Many textbooks, particularly for courses in STEM disciplines, can cost over $200 and as much as $400.

According to the N.C. Department of Labor, working students need to clock more than 27 hours at a minimum wage of $7.25 to afford a single $200 textbook. At Durham Tech, full-time students are advised to anticipate spending between $350 and $700 on textbooks each semester.

The National Association of College Stores reports the gap between the costs of new versus used books also has increased, rising from $49 to $59 since 2007. But if students register for classes late – as many do – the likelihood of finding a sufficient selection of used textbooks available in the bookstore is greatly reduced.

Most students do purchase the required text, but often not until several weeks into the semester. By then, they may have missed critical assignments. They do so, not because of procrastination, but because like all of us they are balancing multiple responsibilities. Many Durham Tech students, including DiGrazia, work at least part-time in addition to attending classes. Many have responsibilities outside of the classroom that influence their financial decisions, such as paying for childcare.

Durham Tech has made significant strides toward providing realistic solutions to help students effectively manage the burden of textbook costs. Our faculty are well aware of the strain that added expenses put on students and have taken an active role in seeking out alternatives, such as offering access to open source textbooks.

But it’s clear we need to do more.

Dr. Bill Ingram, president of Durham Tech, said student loans for textbooks can add to the problem.

“In addition to nearly $20 million in federal and state aid, the institution has disbursed as much as $900,000 in financial assistance to local students who reside in Durham and Orange counties,” Ingram said. “Students who receive financial assistance – about 44 percent of our student population – use their financial aid for books and supplies. But if their aid comes in the form of loans, interest payments on those loans add to the burden.”

For these students, a $1,200 loan can translate to an additional $46.39 charge for the same $200 textbook.

We know students make academic decisions based on their ability to buy the required textbooks, often taking fewer classes because of the associated cost of the textbooks. Based on the current Durham Tech per-credit cost, the cost of one textbook is nearly as expensive as the course itself. Add in family obligations of many students and we can begin to understand why this topic is so important.

Textbook costs pose significant concerns for students, and therefore are a threat to student success. If we acknowledge rising costs present an access issue as much as a financial issue, then we also have to ask ourselves if we are truly lowering barriers for students or simply acting as gatekeepers.

Above all else, we want our students to finish what they start.

Susan Paris, EdD. is vice president of Student Learning and Instructional Services at Durham Technical Community College.

How to help

Tuition and fees fund only a portion of the overall student experience. The Durham Tech community depends on the support of private donations to provide financial support for the resources, programs, and services that directly correlate to student success. Consider a donation to the Durham Technical Community College Foundation to support student success at Durham Tech.