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While this information varies based on factors such as course load and subject matter, students estimated spending an average of $667 on required course materials during the 2008-09 academic year, according to NACS’ Student Watch™ 2010 report. Required course materials can be any type of book or media required or recommended by faculty for classes. These could be new or used textbooks, regular or general books, as well as coursepacks, readers, customized materials or digital/electronic educational materials. This amount does not include the savings achieved by students selling their used textbooks, which further reduces net costs for most students. Further, 24% of students said they usually pay for course materials with scholarships and grants during the 2008-09 academic year, and that aid covered, on average, 58% of the costs of the course materials for those students.
Supplies are an additional cost that may include lab fees, course fees, computer-related expenses, educational supplies such as art and medical supplies, and other costs not included in regular tuition and fees. Supplies and fees can cost an average of $267 per semester.
It is a common misperception that college stores make a large profit on textbooks. For new textbooks, college stores typically obtain the books they sell directly from publishers. Publishers establish the amount they charge college stores for each title. College stores then establish a retail price (the amount a student pays for the textbook). The difference between what the college store pays for the textbook and the amount they charge the student is called the gross margin. This gross margin is used to cover the personnel costs, the cost of freight, and other costs related to operating the store (utilities, rent, etc.) The average gross margin on new textbooks is currently 22.3%, according to NACS’ 2010 College Store Industry Financial Report. This margin has remained relatively constant since 1989.
After expenses have been paid, a college store makes 4 cents for every dollar’s worth of new textbooks sold. In most cases, the money that is made goes back to the institution and into student programs, such as financial aid, to help defray other costs of higher education.
In the case of used textbooks, the gross margin is higher because they require more handling and incur more operating expenses. They also present a higher risk to the store, because of the chance that a new edition of the textbook may make them obsolete.
It’s important to remember that college stores are not traditional retailers. They are unique in that they do not select the bulk of their inventory (textbooks); rather they procure the materials faculty select as appropriate for their classes. Also, because college stores are service driven, they attempt to provide the lowest possible prices for students as opposed to trying to make the largest profit.
A 2005 study conducted by the Government Accountability Office found that college textbook prices rose at twice the rate of annual inflation over the last two decades, but have not risen as much as tuition costs and other higher education expenses. Further, student total spending on course materials has risen at a much lower rate than the increase in unit prices.
In spite of the attention paid to online sales of books and course materials, a 2010 Student Watch™ report found that students reported purchasing 59% of their required course materials either at the college store or through the college store’s web site.
Lower prices on college textbooks are available overseas because some U.S. publishers have sold these titles to wholesalers or retailers abroad at prices that are greatly reduced in comparison to those available to U.S. college stores and other U.S. retailers. The Internet has made it possible for foreign wholesalers and distributors to pass along lower prices on textbooks to U.S. consumers, placing them in direct competition with U.S. college stores. This adds to students’ distrust and frustration regarding U.S. college textbook prices.
NACS supports a “one price” system in which U.S. students are not paying more than non-U.S. students, particularly those in developed countries. U.S. students should not, by themselves, bear the sole burden of course material development costs or suffer the consequences of underdeveloped countries' inability or unwillingness to enforce copyright laws. All segments of the textbook industry should be working together to see how we can best maintain the extraordinary high quality of U.S. higher education – which is the envy of the world – without making the price of that education prohibitive to many Americans.
© National Association of College Stores
Revised: January 2011