Delivering College Textbooks in Eleven Links

What do students want? In the early weeks of any academic semester, for many students, the biggest wish is minimal worry over the cost of necessary course textbooks. Pearson, the world’s largest textbook publisher, announced in July a shift in approach that it touted as ensuring greater affordability of materials produced for the college classroom. 

Digital First

Beginning immediately, all future releases of Pearson’s 1500 active U.S. titles would be released digitally, with updates added on a continual basis. Flipping the traditional model, print versions of those same 1500 textbooks would be updated far less frequently than the current three-year cycle and such print versions would only be available on a rental basis. Upon receipt of this announcement, Pearson’s stock value rose and shareholders were assured that the company had successfully transitioned from “a period of renewal and recovery to one of sustainable growth”. 

Part of that renewal and recovery process included Pearson’s sale of key assets, such as the Financial Times and its K-12 textbook business in the United States. But Pearson’s July announcement indicates the confidence Pearson has in its new approach. 

In the press release announcing the move, CEO John Fallon answered from Pearson’s perspective the question of what students want: “Students are demanding easier to access and more affordable higher education materials, with nearly 90% of learners using some kind of digital education tool. We’ve changed our business model to deliver affordable, convenient and personalized digital materials to students. Our digital first model lowers prices for students and, over time, increases our revenues. By providing better value to students, they have less reason to turn to the secondary market...”

Why This Approach?

In an article for Forbes, publishing analyst Bill Rosenblatt explained Pearson’s interest in reducing the threat posed by the secondary market for used textbooks, “Students generally don't need to hang on to their textbooks for more than a semester or two. It's perfectly legal to resell your textbooks and to buy used ones, so students do it all the time, and of course, publishers make nothing from resales.”  Over a ten year span (2006-2016), the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that consumer prices for college textbooks increased 88 percent. Because of the cost associated with textbook purchases, surveys show that only 10% of survey respondents prefer to buy new textbooks, one third will buy either new or used while another third will simply not purchase the text at all.  

Nick Hazelrigg, writing for Inside Higher Ed, reported in July on this same trend as documented in survey of 20,000 college students by the National Association of College Stores. Specifically, the article notes that “Student spending has declined almost every year in the last decade -- in 2008 students spent an average of $700 on course materials.”  The NACS press release about that survey includes another striking statistic, “Eighty-nine percent of students reported using some type of free content. Students reported using a variety of free materials including class handouts, lecture notes, website articles, academic journals, and textbooks. Students acquire free content in a variety of ways. They borrow it, share it, receive it from faculty, and download it. In spring 2019 22% of students reported downloading free content – a 100% increase from the spring of 2016.”  Hazelrigg’s piece includes a quote from Nicole Allen of SPARC that this may, in part, be due to the active support of open educational resources (OER) by academic libraries in supporting their students. 

As a counter-measure, textbook publishers, Cengage and McGraw-Hill as well as Pearson, are moving to implement campus-wide licensing agreements for access to digital textbooks. The “inclusive access” approach is marketed as a means of keeping textbook costs down by encouraging an institution to adopt a single publisher’s offerings for the bulk of its courses. The approach has met with mixed results. While acknowledging that the approach may have appeal in some contexts, the non-profit initiative OpenStax, offered advice on appraising such an option. 

The Takeaway

Digital platforms and licensed content collections offer value for publishers; new models allow the delivery of the best possible product or service to their clientele. The marketplace however may be less enthusiastic as unintended consequences come to light. The news coverage of the Pearson announcement gave rise to a variety of concerns. Citing three separate surveys of faculty, provosts, and C-level administrators, Kenneth Green (blogging for Inside Higher Ed) noted that there is some trepidation about how digital-first impacts on those college students least able to afford a computer. Faculty may not be entirely happy either. There is a possibility that these moves by providers may result in fewer opportunities for income resulting from authoring textbooks.