Fast Facts: College Textbook Costs and Open Educational Resources (OER)

Open educational resources (OER) are teaching and learning materials that have been published online under an open license granting permission for everyone to freely and legally…

  • Access, download and redistribute digital files.
  • Produce hard copies of the material.
  • Tailor the material to fit local needs.
  • Mix multiple OERs together to create new works.
  • Keep and use copies of the material forever.

Colleges and universities are increasingly turning to open educational resources as a solution to the rapidly rising cost of college textbooks.

College textbook costs compromise student success.  

The cost of college textbooks increased 82% between 2002 and 2012, approximately three times the rate of inflation. (Source: GAO, 2013)

The average undergraduate student budget for books and supplies is more than $1,200 per year. (Source: College Board, 2013)

About 2 out of 3 undergraduate students said they had skipped buying a required textbook because the cost was too high. More than 3 out of 4 of those students did so even though they believed it could hurt them academically. (Source: Student PIRGs, 2014)

Less than half of college students now purchase a current version of their assigned textbook – opting for older editions or unauthorized copies – down from 62% in 2010. (Source: Book Industry Study Group, 2013)

A survey of 22,000 Florida students found 48% of students have taken fewer courses and 26% had dropped a course because of the cost of textbooks. (Source: Florida Virtual Campus, 2016)

Textbook publishing is broken and does not operate as a free market.

The five largest textbook publishing companies controlled nearly 90% of the college textbook market as of 2008. Further, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Herfindahl Index, the textbook publishing industry is considered a “highly concentrated” market where anti-competitive behavior is likely to occur. (Source: Koch, 2013)

The textbook market bears many similarities with the prescription drug market, where the decision-maker is less price-sensitive than the consumer, and the consumer is strongly motivated to purchase the product regardless of what it costs. This enables the publishing industry to increase prices rapidly and engage in anti-competitive practices. (Source: Koch, 2013)

Students are not consumers, they are captives.

Because of this market failure, traditional publishers do not take full advantage of technology to reduce costs.

A study of a 23-campus e-textbook pilot program found that less than one third of students believed that using e-textbooks significantly improved their learning or engagement in a course.  (Source: EDUCAUSE, 2013)

Daytona Beach Community College found that e-textbooks resulted in virtually no cost savings and more than half of the students expressed dissatisfaction with using e-textbooks. (Source: Graydon, et al., 2011)

E-textbooks and digital supplements typically offer minimal savings over conventional print-based options. They also use digital rights-management (DRM) techniques to turn off access at the end of an academic term, giving publishers even more control over the market and pricing than they did in the first place. (Source: Student PIRGs, 2010)

Open educational resources offer substantial cost savings

In a study of an OER project in Washington State, students saved about 90% over the cost of traditional materials, and the cumulative savings of $5.5 million have more than tripled the state’s investment in the project and will only continue to grow. (Source: Student PIRGs, 2013)

The average savings of students who use OER in place of traditional materials is $90.61 per course, according to one study. (Source: Hilton, et al., 2014)

Based on the estimate above, replacing one textbook with OER for each of the 17.7 million undergraduate students in the U.S. would save $1.6 billion dollars per year.

Open educational resources maintain or improve student learning outcomes, while creating a platform for cost savings and future innovation.

At Mercy College, a minority-serving institution in New York state, replacing traditional textbooks with OER in mathematics courses resulted in statistically significant learning gains for students and a remarkable 20 percentage point increase in the student pass rate.  Faculty cite access to the course materials starting day one of the course as a significant factor. (Source: Pawlyshyn, 2013)

In a case study at Houston Community College, students who used an open textbook instead of traditional textbook scored higher on departmental final exams, had higher GPAs in the class and higher retention rates. (Source: Hilton, 2012)

OpenStax College, a non-profit textbook publisher based out of Rice University, is publishing open textbooks for 20 of the highest enrollment college courses. Their open textbooks alone have been adopted by more than 1,000 courses, and have saved students an estimated $30 million to date. (Source: OpenStax College, 2014)

In the K-12 arena, a rigorous controlled study of Utah secondary science education found that students who used open textbooks scored as well, if not better, than students who used traditional textbooks. (Source: Robinson, et al., 2014)


Book Industry Study Group (2013). Student Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education, Volume Three [press release].

College Board (2013). Trends in College Pricing.

EDUCAUSE (2013). Understanding What Higher Education Needs from E-Textbooks: An EDUCAUSE/Internet2 Pilot.

Florida Virtual Campus (2016). 2016 Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey.

GAO (2013). COLLEGE TEXTBOOKS Students Have Greater Access to Textbook Information.

Graydon, B., Urbach-Buholz, B., Kohen, C. (2011). A Study of Four Textbook Distribution Models. EDUCAUSE Quarterly, v34 n4.

Hilton III, J., & Laman, C. (2012). One college’s use of an open psychology textbook. The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 27(3), 265-272.

Hilton III, J. L., Robinson, T. J., Wiley, D., & Ackerman, J. D. (2014). Cost-savings achieved in two semesters through the adoption of open educational resources. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 15(2).

Koch, J. (2013). Turning the Page.

OpenStax College. (2014). Our textbooks have saved students $30 million [press release].

Pawlyshyn, N.  (2013) Adopting OER: A Case Study of Cross-Institutional Collaboration and Innovation. Educause Review.

Robinson, T. J., Fischer, L., Wiley, D., & Hilton, J. (2014). The Impact of Open Textbooks on Secondary Science Learning Outcomes. Educational Researcher, 43(7), 341-351.

The Student PIRGs. (2010). A Cover to Cover Solution: How Open Textbooks are the Path to Textbook Affordability.

The Student PIRGs. (2013). Updated Cost Analysis of the Open Course Library.

The Student PIRGs (2014). Fixing the Broken Textbook Market: How Students Respond to High Textbook Prices and Demand Alternatives.

* This content was adopted from the SPARC and Open Textbook Network workshop at ACRL 2017.