Education

Cal State colleges saved students $36 million by lowering textbook costs

The bookstore at California State University, Dominguez Hills offers different textbook options.
The bookstore at California State University, Dominguez Hills offers different textbook options.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

Listen to story

01:03
Download this story 0.0MB

Five years after California lawmakers directed the state’s public colleges and universities to bring down college textbook costs, campuses are reporting millions of dollars in savings.

The California State University system has saved students over $36 million in the last year, said Leslie Kennedy, the director of Affordable Learning Solutions for the system.

“Our goal is to seek ways to provide equity and access to free learning materials and remove financial barriers for our students in order to support their success,” she said.

Cal State has been doing so by helping faculty, librarians and bookstore administrators at Cal State, the University of California, and the state’s community colleges collaborate to find cheaper or free class material.

College administrators said saving students money will lead to other benefits such as cutting college costs and improving college graduation rates.

A decade ago, the outcry over high college textbook costs led policymakers in some states to take action. By one estimate, college students nationwide spent $701 each year on textbooks in 2008. By 2017 that cost dropped by more than $100.

In California, a series of state laws pushed public colleges and universities to find ways to make textbooks cheaper.

Kennedy said Cal State's Dominguez Hills campus is one of the best in the system at coming up with options to save students money. According to the university, the campus saved students $1.5 million in textbook costs in the last year.

The campus bookstore still offers expensive options. A new copy of the textbook for Intermediate Accounting II sells for $373.25, but the same book can be rented for the semester for $149.30. Students can write on and highlight rented books. The bookstore also sells cheaper electronic copies.

The bookstore is an important part of lowering prices, but faculty are even more important. University officials said that more than half of faculty on the campus have worked with the library to pick cheaper electronic or online versions of class materials.

But college administrators can’t take all the credit for dropping textbook prices. Students – infinitely resourceful when faced with few resources – have found their own ways to cut costs.

“[Textbooks] are so expensive I don’t buy them from the bookstore,” said Kaleah Patterson, a graduate student in the department of social work.

“This past semester they were so expensive that me and two other classmates actually bought the books together, we split the costs three ways,” she said.

Educators said the longer students go without buying textbooks the more likely it is that they'll do poorly in the class.

Students are also finding out that price matching web sites can save them lots of money.

“I saved almost $200 for this semester,” said Heidi Moran, a health sciences major at CSU Dominguez Hills. She saved that money by using web sites like SlugBooks and Chegg to find used copies and rent books.

“Our advisors here are telling us to check the books out [on those sites],” she said.

The 2013 legislation directed the three higher education systems to create a library of free textbooks for use in college classes.

The next step in the California effort to reduce textbook costs is ambitious: Advocates want to create entire degree and certificate programs with no textbook costs. And that's already happening at some Southern California campuses.

“If students have more money in their pocket for living expenses they’ll be able to focus more on their studies,” said James Glapa-Grossklag, dean of College of the Canyons.

“They’ll be able to take more classes because they’re spending less money on textbooks and they’re more likely to complete their classes because they actually have the material that the instructors want them to have,” he said.

His Santa Clarita campus is one of 23 on track to have some degree and certificate programs with no textbook costs by 2019.