Students spending less on course materials

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Two- and four-year college students continue to spend less on course materials, according to an annual survey by the National Association of College Stores (NACS).

In the 2019-20 academic year, students, on average, spent $413 on course materials, compared to $415 the previous year and $484 in 2017-18, NACS says. Their spending on course materials has dropped significantly since 2007-08, when the average was $701.

The average spending per course also has dropped, from $50 to $47. In 2015-16, the average was $71.

“Over time, there’s really been a decline in course material spending,” said Brittany Conley, a research analyst for NACS’s research arm, which conducted the survey.

NACS officials noted that the figures are an average, and spending will vary based on a student’s course load, academic subjects and grade level. For example, students in health-related programs tend to spend more on course materials.

The association received more than 14,000 responses to its survey from students enrolled at 35 participating two- and four-year colleges.

Two-year students spend more

Two-year college students, on average, spent more on materials than four-year college students, $472 compared to $369, respectively.

Richard Hershman, vice president of government relations at NACS, explained that the cost for all students over the first two years of college is about the same because they typically take similar required general education courses. Students in their third and fourth years tend to have lower materials expenses, he said. On average, they spend about $412 in their third year and $362 in the four/fifth year.

The survey also showed that students are continuing to delay when they acquire materials. Twenty-nine percent of students had none of their materials on the first day, compared to 26 percent in 2019 and 21 percent in 2017.

It also showed a drop in the percentage of students who had all their materials on the first day, 29 percent in 2020 compared to 35 percent last year and 40 percent in 2017.

Hershman noted that, in part, students waiting to receive their student aid payments and other factors may be contributing to the delay in buying materials.

However, a higher percentage of two-year college students had their materials by the first day of classes than students at four-year institutions (51 percent compared to 25 percent). And a lower percent of two-year college students didn’t have any course material by the first day of classes than students at four-year institutions (15 percent compared to 31 percent).

Digital impact

Students are buying more digital course materials. The percentage of students who paid for digital materials (purchased and rented) increased from 14 percent in spring 2019 to 21 percent this spring.

The survey also showed a big jumped in dowloaded materials that students didn’t pay for (whether legally or not). This spring, more than a quarter of students (26 percent) indicated they didn’t buy their dowloaded material. This figure has steadily increased from 3 percent in fall 2015.

Hershman said this is likely partly due to teachers providing open education resources and working with college libraries to find other options to help keep costs down for students.

The report also looked at students’ preferences for print or digital material. Thirty percent said it depends on the class. But for the first time a larger percentage of students said they preferred print textbooks with some type of digital than just print textbooks (26 percent compared to 22 percent).

Looking ahead

Most survey responses were submitted this year prior to the pandemic, so any changes it prompted won’t be seen until next year’s survey, Hershman said. For the coming year, faculty are waiting to see if their courses will be on campus or remote due to the coronavirus, which can influence what types of materials they will require, he said.

NACS also conducts a similar course materials survey with faculty, which it will release later this year.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.