Student spending decreases

Digital format challenges physical copy


The Advance-Titan archives– Student spending on textbooks has decreased significantly in the past year due to digital formats offering a less expesive alternative to the physical copy.

Josh Lehner, Staff Writer

Spending on textbooks has decreased by 26% between the 2020 and 2021 academic years, according to the Association of American Publishers. This reflects a decade-long decrease in spending by 48%, from $655 a decade ago to $339 today.

University Books & More Assistant Bookstore Director Nikki Olthoff said that the bookstore has experienced an average decline of about 4.3% per year in student textbook purchases over the past six fiscal years. She cites digital formats as one of the primary factors responsible.

“Students have greater choice to purchase the format and pricing that works best for them,” she said.

More prudent purchasing decisions by students has also led to a decrease in spending. But online resources, such as textbook retailers, give students a greater range of purchasing options and more flexibility to buy course materials later in the semester.

The vastness of free internet resources also gives students a reason not to purchase course materials altogether. But this can ultimately hinder their learning experience.

“If students don’t have the required textbook, they are disempowered,” said English Professor Pascale Manning. “Our course reading materials are something that we are actively investigating. So if students don’t have the textbook, they don’t have the core of the class.”

Manning said that she wants her students to be free to gain information on their own and not rely on her alone to guide them. She said that this starts with having the proper course materials.

“Textbooks are crucial in giving students the opportunity to feel like they are empowered to interact with the data themselves,” she said. “I don’t want students to perceive me as the knowledge communicator and themselves as only regurgitating information that I give them.”

Course materials ultimately come down to the professor teaching the course, and Olthoff said that more self-conscious decisions by professors contribute to lower spending. Some professors are choosing cheaper alternatives or dropping course materials altogether in favor of approaches that are aided by online materials.

“Affordability starts with the instructor,” Olthoff said, adding that the bookstore is implementing a program allowing faculty to compare course material prices and find more affordable options.

Olthoff also acknowledged that publishers are moving exclusively towards digital formats. 

“I am in support of digital options, but I believe that allowing students to choose what works best for them contributes to their success,” she said.

While digital formats can provide ease of access for some students, it’s difficult for others to engage with online materials in the same way that they would a physical copy. Some digital course materials also provide only temporary access, meaning that students cannot reference them after their allotted time has expired.

However, despite course materials moving more and more to online formats, UWO operates one of the most successful book buybacks in the Midwest region, Olthoff said.

“This is important because it means that we are getting money back in the pockets of students and contributing to a healthy used book supply,” she  said. “However, with the rise of digital options and more instructors choosing to assign courseware like access codes, buy back rates will decrease over time since digital materials cannot be resold.”

Book buyback rates dropped substantially during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they are currently increasing toward pre-pandemic numbers.