Learning altered by textbook cost

By Ashley Hines

Students pay an exorbitant amount in collegiate fees to achieve a higher education. The needlessly high cost of textbooks erects barriers which prevent students from achieving their fullest academic potential.

Since fall 2017, NIU and student association have been collaborating on an initiative to address the financial burdens textbooks pose to students. Since the initiative’s inception, the university has explored a number of options to address concerns about textbook affordability. Despite these efforts, a solution has yet to emerge, and NIU students are feeling the consequences.

In the 2017-18 academic year, the average undergraduate student spent $555.60 per semester on textbooks, according to a May study by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center of Education Statistics. Student finances have long been an issue, and with the steadily growing cost of tuition, housing, school materials and other living expenses; spending more than $500 on textbooks can put low-income students at a severe disadvantage.

The bodies working on the textbook affordability initiative at NIU have conducted student surveys which have produced alarming results. Students source one of the main hindrances to purchasing course material as the cost being too high, according to a May 10 survey. Over half of those surveyed were able to purchase their books after the first day of class, and roughly 12 percent purchased their books well after the first day of class.

Of surveyed students in a separate Jan. 24 study, 50 percent said their grades have been negatively impacted by the inability to purchase textbooks, according to NIU Libraries’ Textbook Affordability Guide.

“Books are currently too expensive,” Madalynn Mershon, student association director of academic affairs, said. “One of the big issues colleges across the United States are facing is that students are waiting for their refund check or financial aid, and at that point in the semester they’ve already had two weeks without the book. Making sure students can excel in classes because they have access to the required book is really important.”

If a student can’t afford a $200 textbook for the starting weeks of a semester, that’s multiple classes worth of assignments, readings or problems that student cannot complete. What once started as a singular barrier constructed multiple other barriers, which together, drastically affect a student’s ability to learn and be successful.

There are simple, viable options NIU can turn to. Over the last academic year, nearly half of U.S. colleges, including Arizona State University and North Carolina State University, have started using OpenStax, a nonprofit initiative created by Rice University in 2012 which provides free textbooks and other online resources to students. U.S. colleges reportedly saved $177 million within the first year of the program, according to an Aug. 1 Rice University Media report.

NIU provides useful resources faculty and students alike overpass. Mershon said the NIU library is currently working with the dean of liberal arts and sciences to create more funds for the university’s reserve program, a program where students can check out books requested by professors for a designated amount of time. NIU also grants access to open educational resources which provide a vast amount of free information for all majors. Faculty should be more aware of these options and the struggles students face if unable to purchase a required textbook.


“Student feedback and involvement in NIU’s shared governance system is imperative,” Michael Kane, senior economics major and president of the college of liberal arts and sciences student advisory council, said. “I’ve been working on this issue for a couple years now, and I can say faculty does take feedback into consideration in a serious way. I would encourage other students to get involved.”

These solutions will not manifest from nothing. It’s important the student body pressures the university and faculty to move from its stagnation and address this issue many students are subject to.