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Student Spending on College Course Materials Continues Multi-Year Decline

Posted: June 25, 2020

Independent Research from Student Watch and Student Monitor Unveiled in New Reports, Video

June 25, 2020 (Washington, D.C.) – Average student spending on college textbooks and digital course materials has steadily declined in recent years, according to new data unveiled today from Student Watch, which is funded by the National Association of College Stores Foundation, and Student Monitor, an independent research firm.

In its new annual report, Student Watch reports a decline in student spending on course materials of 35 percent over the past six years, while Student Monitor’s semi-annual report similarly indicates a 39 percent decline over the same time period.

“Students are actually spending less on college course materials than we have seen them spend before,” commented Brittany Conley, Research Analyst, On Campus Research for the National Association of College Stores (NACS). “We saw that students spent about $413 across the academic year on course materials. Ten years ago, that number was closer to $700.”

“Students’ out of pocket spending for learning materials and textbooks continues to decline year after year after year,” commented Eric Weil, Managing Partner, Student Monitor LLC.

The new data on the multi-year decline in student spending is highlighted in a video interview with representatives from the two research organizations, which can be seen here.

AAP Video: Student Spending on College Course Materials Continues Multi-Year Decline from Cara Duckworth on Vimeo.

Student Monitor Report

Student Monitor’s LIFESTYLE & MEDIA report found that student spending on course materials went from an average of $691 for the 2014-2015 academic year to $422 for the 2019-2020 school year, a decline of 39 percent over a six-year period. The 2019-2020 figure represents a 14 percent decline as compared to the average student spend of $492 during the 2018-2019 academic year.

Student Watch Survey

The most recent Student Watch survey indicated that course material spending dropped from $638 for the 2014-2015 academic year to $413 for the 2019-2020 academic year, a decline of 35 percent over the last six years. The latest figure represents a 0.5 percent decline as compared to the average student spend of $415 during the 2018-2019 academic year.


The 2020 Student Watch survey involved more than 14,000 students across 35 institutions.

The Student Monitor findings are the result of hour-long, one-on-one, on campus intercept interviews conducted among 1,202 four-year, full time undergraduates attending 93 representative colleges and universities.

“Numbers are going to differ in studies like these just based on general methodology,” Student Watch’s Conley said.  “What you really want to look at are things like overall trends in where the data’s going, what it looks like. And in the case of Student Watch and Student Monitor, we’re seeing the overall trends be consistent. Both of us are reporting a decline in course material spending, which is what you really want to look at when you’re comparing the two and seeing if they’re telling the same story.”


Education publishers understand that students struggle with the overall cost of college and have for years worked to lower the cost of the high-quality course materials they produce while creating increasingly innovative options to access. There is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ solution for college course materials that cover a vast diversity of subject areas, but some publishers have addressed affordability by launching online learning solutions such as Inclusive Access, which provide students with discounted materials on the first day of class. Other options, including subscription models, provide unlimited access to a range of textbooks, online homework access codes and study guides all for one price.

“Students have at least 10 different options or combination of options when it comes to deciding what textbooks or course materials they are going to acquire,” said Student Monitor’s Weil. “They can purchase a new printed textbook, a used printed textbook. They can rent a textbook instead of purchasing a printed textbook. They can acquire an e-Textbook for either limited or unlimited use. They can take advantage of one of these new subscription programs providing unlimited access to print and digital for either a single term or the entire academic year for a flat subscription price. From a student’s perspective, nothing could be more convenient than a subscription model that provides you everything that you need at a discounted price.”

“Inclusive Access is a new concept, a new system,” Weil continued.  “It offers a lot of promise, a lot of benefits to all concerned. From a student’s perspective, what happens is that the student receives all of their digital materials. They’re billed for those materials either through whatever financial aid they may be receiving or through their student account and the access to those materials are actually provided before the first day of class. This is really convenient, really adds to the value of the course from an instructors’ perspective. It’s just an exciting new approach that is more convenient for the student, saves money for the student, increases the value of their tuition dollar. It just makes perfect sense.”

Conley added, “We’re really just seeing a large number of things being offered in the course material space. They’re all playing a part in lowering that overall cost that students end up having to pay. If we’re talking about what’s prevalent among all course material options, rentals is something that we see more prevalent. This year, around 40 percent of students had rented at least one course material over the semester or academic term.”

Students continue to embrace a wide range of options for acquiring their course materials: according to the Student Monitor report, the $422 in average student spending during the 2019-2020 school year included  $174 for new, printed textbooks; $95 for used, printed textbooks; $67 for rented, printed textbooks; $39 for eTextbooks for unlimited use; and $24 for eTextbooks for limited time use.

Student Watch reports that during the 2019-2020 school year, students embraced a wide range of options, mixing print, digital, rental and purchase. 48 percent preferred some type of print book, while 21 percent of students preferred digital-only content. During the year, 80 percent of students purchased course materials during the year, and 44 percent rented course materials.

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AAP Contacts:

John McKay /

Cara Duckworth /

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