June 28, 2019
Shining a Brighter Light on Textbook Affordability

In the past decade, tuition and fees have increased by more than 35 percent at public universities and by more than 34 percent at community colleges in inflation-adjusted dollars. But tuition and fees make up less than half of full-time student budgets at public colleges and universities. Other related expenses have also increased, making it more likely that students will have to take on more educational debt to attend.

Students and families having to contend with near-annual increases in tuition and fees is challenging enough. We want to know what can be done about the other costs of attending college.

In Shining a Brighter Light on Textbook Affordability, we take a look at one component of the cost of attendance formula that colleges and universities report to the U.S. Department of Education every year: the allowance for books and supplies.

There’s ongoing nationwide interest in improving the affordability of textbooks and course materials through greater transparency, increased use of Open Educational Resources, and adoption of cost reduction strategies like textbook rentals.

But the existing institution-level data on books and supplies are limited, and we’re not confident that they provide consistent, accurate, and comparable information for students and families, policymakers, and even institutions themselves.

For example, we found that the allowances for books and supplies reported by institutions vary greatly by state and by sector. And when we reviewed the allowances over several years, we found that some institutions reported different amounts every year while others reported the same amounts.

We assume that institutions use a consistent formula or methodology to estimate how much students typically spend on books and supplies. But information about how institutions calculate these allowances is not collected in IPEDS, so we don’t really know. We also don’t know why these figures change from year to year or in some cases not change at all. Finally, we suspect that not all institutions use the same formula or methodology for calculating these allowances, which means that they probably aren’t comparable across institutions.

We think more should be done to improve these data so they can be used better for continuous improvement, consumer information, and public accountability. We hope that this analysis can help start that conversation.