Are textbooks worth the money?


Design by Peter Lemken/Iowa State Daily

The most expensive textbook sold at the University Bookstore is $347 and the least expensive textbook sold is $7. 

K. Rambo

A student at Iowa State can spend as much as $347 on a single textbook in the Iowa State University Bookstore.

The book is “Solid State Physics.”

A student at Iowa State can spend as little as $7 on a book in the University Bookstore.

The book is “Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass.”

Each semester begins with both excitement and nervousness as students mill about campus trying to find their classes and figure out where they can do homework between classes.

Inevitably, many conversations heard by a passerby will pertain to what students believe are outrageous textbook prices. From a $182.70 sociology textbook to an $18 women’s and gender studies book, students seem to always have an opinion on what they’re paying.

Iowa State estimates undergraduate students will spend more than $500 on textbooks and supplies each semester in the 2018-19 academic year.

The cost at the University Bookstore has lead many students to pursue alternative purchasing options like Amazon.

Dalton Grell, 22, fifth year senior in supply chain management, got creative when he saw a required textbook, “Spreadsheet Model and Decision Analysis,” was $306.70 at the University Bookstore. He found it online for $110.59.

“That one I bought on Amazon so I could get the European version of it,” Grell said.

Grell did not know why it cost so much less or what the difference was when asked.

“I haven’t actually opened the book,” Grell said. “It’s still in the package from Amazon.”

Grell had a recommendation to students who are new to purchasing textbooks.

“You may have the list of the books you are required,” Grell said. “Wait until you go to the first couple days of class, see what the professor says.”

Grell said some professors will say a textbook that was listed as required is actually optional. Grell has experienced a pattern with purchasing textbooks he said he used “rarely ever.”

“There’s only been one class in my five years that I’ve actually read the entire textbook,” Grell said. “Otherwise, I might read the first couple chapters.”

Grell also said he has found other ways to lower costs of his textbooks and recommended other students do the same.

“When you get your major, you have a group of friends and you guys have taken similar classes, see if you can buy [the book] from them for … 20 or 30 bucks,” Grell said. “There’s a lot of people out there who get rid of their textbooks and, you know, they’ll take a pretty good loss on it just to get something back from it.”

Austin Claussen, 22, senior in industrial technology, still had to choose between required books because he could not afford both of them he needed this semester. He could only afford one of two required books.

“I wanted to buy at least one other book but … it’s for a robotics class and it was like $200 and I didn’t have $200 to spend on that book,” Claussen said.

Each student interviewed by the Daily felt the prices, even when reduced, sometimes didn’t match the value of the book.

“I would say to an extent, yes,” Claussen said, when asked if textbooks are worth the money. “I don’t know if any book is worth $200.”

Heather Dean, course materials manager at the Iowa State University Book Store, said value is all about usage.

“Even if the book is only $10, if they’re not using it, there’s still no value,” Dean said. “Now, how many books are $10? Not very many.”

Dean said publishers set the prices of their books and the University Book Store upcharge is only enough to cover operating costs.

Dean recently won an award for pursuing textbook affordability. She said she’s inspired to address the cost of educational materials and how useful they are because of her time as a student at Iowa State.

“That was a big pain point for me as a student and I still see it today as a pain point of ‘I had to buy this book and we never even opened it.’” Dean said. “So it’s my goal to eliminate that.”

Instructors choose the classification of their book on the course materials list, whether it’s required, recommended or optional. Dean said the bookstore will negotiate with instructors to change the classification when they hear a professor is not actually using the book for required readings or exams.

Claussen said more technical books he has purchased have been very helpful, but some books with more remedial content haven’t been worth the purchase. Some books, Claussen has only purchased to be able to complete homework for a class.

Cody West, 21, senior in biology and Student Government president, had also purchased books specifically to complete homework.

West is an advocate for Open Educational Resources (OER), which are openly licensed textbooks and other course materials.

“It’s really kind of been a movement and it’s a hard one because I think the biggest problem right now is our faculty aren’t aware of it,” West said. “They don’t really know what open resources are and I think a lot of them see a threat as far as getting rid of academic journals or these things that are very prestigious that we’re all kind of … attached to.”

West, being in the STEM field, has routinely spent more than $500 per semester on textbooks in his time at Iowa State. This semester, West spent $200.50 on textbooks and $270 in course delivery fees.

“This was actually the cheapest semester I’ve had during my time at Iowa State,” West said.

West prefers hard copies over ebooks but said he’ll do what he can to save money. While students can charge textbooks to their U-Bill, the money still has to be paid in-semester and savings have an immediate, tangible impact on some students.

“I much, much, much rather prefer a hard copy but if you can save $60 on three books, I mean that all adds up really quickly,” West said. “That’s groceries for two months.”

West was aware his textbook costs are higher than some students because of his major.

“I think all the intro classes for those have those really outrageous prices because the editions change all the time,” West said. “Students are always expected to buy the newest edition.”

Other students felt the newest editions were often too similar to the prior editions to warrant a steep price increase.

Erin Wagner, 22, is a senior in agricultural business and animal science. Wagner said the University Bookstore should be selling, and buying, past editions of textbooks that are new enough to be used.

“In most cases, either the professor understands that if they’re brand new, they’re really, really expensive, and they’ll allow for that one edition [older],” Wagner said. “For the most part, a lot of that information doesn’t change.”

Caitlin Yamada, Naye Valenzuela, Jill O’Brien and Alex Connor contributed reporting to this article.