Indiana University’s eTexts

Indiana University campus

Indiana University is fighting high textbook costs with etexts.
Image: Chuck W Walker /

Textbooks are one of the most frustrating expenses to students. A math textbook that can only be used for a semester, three at most, can run as high as $300 or more. College bookstores flaunt bright posters advertising their buy-back programs, but it only takes one semester to learn that those are a false promise. By the time you can see back that math book, the new edition’s already come out and your $300 book will net you $16 in store credit.

The average university student with a full course-load spends over $1000 a year on textbooks. The reasons for the high tickets are many, but the key points are these: Professors assign specific editions for their convenience, which means students have no ability to vote with their dollar. There are only five major textbook publishers, which means they have no incentive to price themselves competitively.

Textbooks are 81% more expensive now than they were a generation ago. Students have spoken out about having to choose between vital texts and their meal plans. And now, some schools are stepping up to help students fight back.

Indiana University, in 2012, began making electronic textbooks, eTexts, available to students who opt in. For about $35 a book, they can access their text from any internet-connected device. They can take notes, get access to their teacher’s notes on the texts, and share their reading with others. With 21 smaller publishers providing material directly to the school, rather than via a distributor, costs are kept low.

At the beginning of this school year, approximately 25% of the school, or 25,000 students, had opted in to eTexts. The number has swollen every semester since the program’s inception. Teachers like it because it means the entire class can afford the latest edition of the assigned reading, so everyone can be literally on the same page. And students, of course, appreciate the lower cost and not having to lug heavy books across campus for every class.

While there are and always will be those who appreciate the “dead tree” kind of text book, the mere fact that there are options now should start to force an improvement in quality across all formats.


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