Kicking off his focus on education bus tour last month, President Barack Obama described the soaring costs in higher education as unsustainable, and ‘a barrier and a burden for too many American families.’ One of the areas where those costs are particularly significant is in access to college course materials. Bloomberg cites the costs of college textbooks as having more than doubled since the end of 2001, while a study commissioned this year by the non-profit National Survey of Student Engagement claimed that over 40 percent of students didn’t purchase all required books, primarily because they couldn’t afford them. It’s a familiar story for Barnes & Noble Colleges’ Vice President of Books & Digital Strategy, Jade Roth. “The cost of course materials has continued to rise, outpacing the cost of inflation,” she says, “and there’s been a growing pressure to try and find more affordable options for students.”
For many years, the only affordable option available to students was a used textbook. “That typically realized savings of some 25 percent, but that just wasn’t enough, and we had to develop better options. We had to become much more aggressive in finding better solutions for our customers,” Roth says. One of the early initiatives was created in 2003, when the company debuted e-textbooks. “We’ve continued to sell an increasing number of digital textbooks over the last few years, growing in student demand and averaging up to 60 percent off the new print selling price,” she explains, but adds that digital formats still represent a small part of total course materials sold. Students still largely prefer print books, but textbook rentals have emerged as a popular alternative, starting with a small pilot program for the company over three years ago, and now growing dramatically.
“All of the schools we serve now provide textbook rental options,” says Pat Haze, Director, Textbook Programs for Barnes & Noble College, “and we’ve also grown the number of titles available in the program with over 80 percent of textbooks now eligible for rent.” The savings students can realize from renting their textbooks are substantial. Haze estimates rentals can reduce costs by 50 percent, a significant figure when considering estimates for a typical student’s textbook spending range from $700 to $1,000 annually.
Spreading the word about the array of savings options now available is key to the Barnes & Noble College mission. Both in-store and online, students can view all formats that are available for a single textbook and the cost for each option. And through online resources such as FacultyEnlight, an innovative platform that enhances the textbook adoption experience and lets faculty research and adopt textbooks, professors can see the cost of the books they are recommending and better assess their relevance. The platform also allows instructors to communicate with faculty at other schools teaching similar courses, which can reveal more cost effective alternative book selections.
Haze also describes initiatives such as I Speak Textbook, an educational program launching this fall, as essential to helping students understand that their bookstore is there to help guide them through the different options. “When we initially launched the textbook rental program, students had misconceptions that they couldn’t write or take notes in their books, that they weren’t really theirs to use fully,” he explains. “The I Speak Textbook program educates students about the course material options we offer and their different price points, so we can help students make the best choice for their learning style and budget.”
Publishers might argue that a college textbook is a completely different product than the typical summer best-seller. Often developed by a team of experts, textbooks require a greater need for accuracy and frequent updates – even the copyright clearances for course materials can be expensive. An individual title may cost well over $100, with many closer to $200. Having a determined mission to help students realize such significant savings might seem at odds for a company in the business of book retailing, but Roth doesn’t see the anomaly.
“At Barnes & Noble College, we have very savvy consumers, and if we were not providing affordable options to students, those students would no longer shop in our stores,” she says simply. “By being the best source for every book they need, and ensuring that it’s the right book, while giving them many different format options, we’ll continue to be at the epicenter of their needs,” she adds, “and that’s really important for us.”