Faculty: Help Your Students Save on Textbooks

By Karen Kohn, collections analysis librarian, with the Open Education Group

Photograph of woman in office looking at computer

“Does Temple University Libraries have my textbook?”

This is a question we at Temple University Libraries (TUL) hear frequently at the beginning of each semester, from students who may be struggling to pay for course materials. As a faculty member, you may see students coming to class unprepared because they haven’t bought the book, or dropping out of class because they can’t afford materials. One way to keep textbook costs low in the courses you teach is by assigning readings that are available as ebooks through the Libraries and letting students know you have done so.

The Challenge of Textbook Costs

Textbook affordability has become an issue of national concern as the cost of textbooks rose 40% between 2010 and 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A survey conducted by Temple Student Government for the university’s Textbook Task Force in fall 2020 (12,500 anonymous, randomly selected students; 628 responses) showed that 24% of Temple students choose courses based on the costs of the materials. In order to afford a textbook, 41% have worked extra hours at their job, and 14% have skipped meals.

How the Libraries Help Save Students Money

One of the steps TUL has taken to help reduce these costs is to purchase ebooks of course-assigned materials. While we are not able to buy everything, it is worth searching our library catalog to see if there is an ebook available for your class. If there is, you can let your students know, or even link to the book within your Canvas course.

The number of books that the Libraries are able to buy each semester varies, as not everything is available in an appropriate format. Textbook publishers such as Pearson or Cengage usually do not sell ebooks to libraries. The ebooks we buy are ones that are not technically classified as textbooks, but general books that are assigned as reading in a course. When possible, we get licenses that allow multiple simultaneous users, but if a single-user license is the only one available, we’ve decided it’s better to purchase it than not. We also do not buy an ebook if it costs more than four times the print. In the 2020-21 academic year, between new purchases and titles already in our catalog, we were able to offer access to just under a third of the books assigned in courses.

While the amount that TUL spends on course materials per year is not trivial ($13,000 this academic year), it is minimal compared to the potential savings for students. Recent calculations showed that in the 2020-21 academic year, between the ebooks the Libraries purchased and those we already owned, TUL saved students an estimated $302,849. This represents $247,223 savings in fall 2020 and $55,626 in spring 2021.

How We Calculated Savings

These calculations are based on several different numbers, collected by different people. First, a student worker looked up the prices of all the books on Temple’s Barnes & Noble bookstore website. The student collected the used price for each book, assuming students would try to save money by purchasing this cheaper option. The same student also looked up enrollment in each course.

The next step was to estimate how many students used each book. For this step, a librarian checked how many times the books were used between August and December 2020 (for fall books) and January and May 2021 (for spring books), referring to standard usage reports from each of our ebook platforms. Surprisingly, 29% of books that were assigned in fall 2020 and are available as library ebooks were not used during that semester. In spring 2021, 49% of course-assigned texts to which the Libraries provide access were not used. We did not count unused ebooks towards the savings.

For books that were used, the librarian compared the number of times a title was used to the enrollment. If a course had 25 students enrolled but the book was only used five times, that means at most five students may have opted to use the ebook instead of paying for their own copy. In the opposite scenario, if a course had 25 students enrolled and the book was used 200 times, there is still a maximum of 25 students who could’ve chosen not to buy the book and to make use of the library ebook instead. For our calculations, we used either the enrollment or the total uses, whichever was lower, and multiplied this by the price of the book. While we were as conservative as possible in our calculations, we know that this is still only an estimate of potential savings, not absolute savings. Maybe all five uses, or all two hundred uses, were from the same student.

How You Can Help as a Faculty Member

Student savings could be even more significant if the campus community was widely aware that the library routinely purchases course-assigned books and if students knew how to find this information. TUL provides a database, updated at the start of each semester, of ebooks that are associated with courses. Faculty can direct students to this database, or search the library catalog. Please speak with your subject librarian if you want to know if the Libraries can purchase a book for your class, if you need help determining what is already available, or if you want instruction on linking to an ebook in Canvas.