The college textbook industry is a racket designed to con students out of their money. There's already been plenty written about why it's a scam, though not as much about the hidden consequences of the status quo. Here's something notable: Overpriced textbooks are an under-the-radar contributor to the student debt crisis.

In 2012, the average graduating college senior with student loans held just under $30,000 in debt. That figure doesn't include course materials not covered by financial aid. A 2014 U.S. Public Interest Research Group study found that the average American college student spends $1,200 per year on books and supplies.

A separate survey conducted in 2015 by education tech company Rafter revealed that 38 percent of students used credit cards as their primary payment method for textbooks and other required items. That means the constant nickel-and-diming that comes with acquiring ancillary materials can be especially hard on students who struggle to make ends meet. 

"When textbooks aren't affordable, it puts an incredible burden on folks going to school," says Sara Leoni, Rafter's CEO. "Feeling like you’re the only person in the classroom without the textbook can be daunting."

So daunting, she explains, that it can impinge on one's ability to succeed. "Instead of the students walking into their academic advisor and saying 'I don’t know what to do,' they end up just dropping. ... It becomes an uncomfortable situation for them. They already feel like outsiders."

While it's often the case students can find deals on oft-used texts — particularly for entry-level courses — the cost dilemma become more acute as students reach upper-level courses. Last year, Carl Straumsheim of Inside Higher Ed wrote about a $400 textbook for a 400-level chemistry course

"While efforts to contain costs and increase access to course materials are well underway, those initiatives rarely target upper-level courses. And because of the advanced subject matter, fewer students have likely taken those courses in the past, meaning fewer used textbooks on the market."

It also means less of a chance to try and go without the book and still succeed, thus $400 (plus tax) on a credit card. And good luck recouping that cost when it comes to selling the book back.

Visualizing our textbook woes

Here's a helpful infographic (also embedded in the post below) that summarizes the findings of the Rafter survey. It illustrates many of the unseen costs and consequences of the unsatisfactory textbook state of the textbook industry. A few highlights:

  • The National College board recommends a budget of $600 per term for textbooks; 93 percent of students budget less than $300.
  • Financial aid does not always factor in textbook costs; 47 percent of Rafter survey respondents report that financial aid covered less than half the cost of their course materials.
  • The high cost of textbooks will often limit a student's learning potential; 66 percent of students admit to having gone without at least one of their required books, cost being the primary reason. This leads to undue stress and anxiety as well as difficulty keeping up with the class, not to mention a hampering of the student-professor relationship.

The key takeaway here is that student debt consists of way more than just the figure presented on a loan statement. The incidental costs of things like textbooks add up. Wary students are then forced to choose between paying out the ear for course materials (that may not even be that valuable) or going to class unprepared.


Top photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images


Robert Montenegro is a writer and dramaturg who regularly contributes to Big Think and Crooked Scoreboard. He lives in Washington DC and is a graduate of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Twitter: @Monteneggroll. Website: