Don't Forget about Textbooks When Calculating Student Debt

College textbooks are a racket. Financial aid infrequently covers their cost. A significant percentage of students are forced to use credit cards to purchase them. This is one of the unseen contributors to student debt.

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: robertmontenegro.com.

    LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

    Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

    Getty Images
    Sponsored
    Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

    No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

    Keep reading Show less

    4 reasons Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for universal basic income

    In his final years, Martin Luther King, Jr. become increasingly focused on the problem of poverty in America.

    (Photo by J. Wilds/Keystone/Getty Images)
    Politics & Current Affairs
    • Despite being widely known for his leadership role in the American civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. also played a central role in organizing the Poor People's Campaign of 1968.
    • The campaign was one of the first to demand a guaranteed income for all poor families in America.
    • Today, the idea of a universal basic income is increasingly popular, and King's arguments in support of the policy still make a good case some 50 years later.
    Keep reading Show less

    A world map of Virgin Mary apparitions

    She met mere mortals with and without the Vatican's approval.

    Strange Maps
    • For centuries, the Virgin Mary has appeared to the faithful, requesting devotion and promising comfort.
    • These maps show the geography of Marian apparitions – the handful approved by the Vatican, and many others.
    • Historically, Europe is where most apparitions have been reported, but the U.S. is pretty fertile ground too.
    Keep reading Show less

    Why I wear my life on my skin

    For Damien Echols, tattoos are part of his existential armor.

    Videos
    • In prison Damien Echols was known by his number SK931, not his name, and had his hair sheared off. Stripped of his identity, the only thing he had left was his skin.
    • This is why he began tattooing things that are meaningful to him — to carry a "suit of armor" made up the images of the people and objects that have significance to him, from his friends to talismans.
    • Echols believes that all places are imbued with divinity: "If you interact with New York City as if there's an intelligence behind... then it will behave towards you the same way."
    Keep reading Show less