Only three out of 10 students say they would rent all their books.

Only three out of 10 students say they would rent all their books.

College textbooks available for free online or sold in print for low cost could slash students’ annual textbook bill from $900 to $184, according to a survey of students from 10 campuses released this fall.

The Student Public Interest Research Group survey, “A Cover to Cover Solution,” which included answers from more than 1,400 students last spring and summer, claims that books with open licenses could cut rising college textbook costs by up to 80 percent, yet remain profitable for publishers who have long battled the open-textbook movement.

Six in 10 students said they would be willing to buy low-cost paper copies of an open textbook, the group explains, as three-quarters of student respondents preferred printed books over digital textbooks—which is similar to findings from other surveys conducted in higher education.

Math department instructors at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) have four open textbooks available for between $14 and $20 apiece—a program that has proved popular with students, but sometimes troublesome for educators.

Lon Mitchell, an assistant math professor at VCU, said that while students appreciate the massive cost savings of the open-textbook options, they often bring only limited printed-out sections of the text to class and don’t have other sections the instructor might want to review.

And many students, Mitchell said, have resisted the online versions of the open textbooks.

“Students have come to expect a lot from the visual aspect of their books, so they felt the quality of the text was lacking [online], just from its appearance,” he said of open textbooks posted to learning management systems such as Blackboard. “And there’s something unattractive about [math textbooks] in electronic format.”

Donald Pass, a student at Cerritos College in Norwalk, Calif., who was interviewed in the Student PIRG survey, said he enjoyed the flexibility of an open textbook he was assigned for a course last academic year.

“What I liked most was that I had options,” Pass said. “I can read it free online, purchase a print copy with study aids, or I can print it myself.”

The Student PIRG research also showed that students will peruse the web for the best textbook rental deals and save hundreds of dollars every semester—but few students are willing to rent all of their books.

Ninety-three percent of students in the Student PIRG survey said they would rent “at least some of their textbooks,” with only 34 percent saying they would rent every college textbook.

Despite the growing popularity of low-cost textbook rental web sites like and, there remains some demand for textbooks students can keep.

“Students know they’re going to use the book again, or want to refer back to it,” said Nicole Allen, a Student PIRG spokeswoman.

Using eBooks and textbook rental services can trim students’ annual book costs from around $900 to $600, according to the survey.

Textbook rentals “will remain important cost-saving tools for students in the short term,” Allen said, adding that open textbooks—books that are made available online for free—would be a long-term solution to saving students cash every semester.

“If we’re going to sell textbook affordability, we need to come up with a solution that will accommodate a lot of people,” she said. “We can’t depend on one silver bullet.”

Mitchell from VCU said the couple dollars the university makes from each print version of an open textbook sold to students wouldn’t be enough to sustain publishers, authors, and marketing agencies in the book industry.

“Offering an open-source format will certainly bite into that revenue,” he said. “It’s possible to generate income with the open-source model, but we certainly don’t generate anywhere near what we would need to make a salary.”

The Student PIRG survey revealed that fewer than half of respondents would be comfortable using even one digital textbook each semester.

The survey illustrates a lingering hesitancy to embrace digital textbooks on college campuses. Three out of four students surveyed by the National Association of College Stores last year said they prefer print to digital textbooks and that 19 percent of students “were unsure about purchasing digital textbooks or would not consider buying them even if they were available.”

BookRenter released a survey in August in which students ranked textbooks among their leading wastes of money and the “biggest scam” in higher education, as the cost of textbooks is rising at four times the rate of inflation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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