College Students Are Spending Less On Course Materials—And More On Tech

Even though they are taking more courses, college students are spending less on course materials.

The average college student spent $339 on course materials in the 2021-2022 academic year, or about $38 per course, according to an annual student spending survey from the National Association of College Stores, a foundation that collects information about retail in higher ed.

The group received responses from 11,800 college students, from 39 colleges and universities in the U.S. and one institution in Canada.

Its conclusion? Less money is coming directly from students’ pockets to pay for course materials.

This year’s spending on textbooks and other course materials represents a 26 percent fall from the previous year, when students spent $456, or $53 per course. It’s the lowest spending in fifteen years, the report notes. And it’s part of a steady decline in spending on course materials since the 2007-08 school year, when students were coughing up $701 on course materials.

What’s driving the decline?

In part, students are using more free content.

Instructors are assigning more content that’s free or at least “not paid for directly” by the student, says Richard Hershman, vice president of government relations at NCAS. Seventy-three percent of students now report being assigned free or non-paid material, the report says.

That encompasses “inclusive access” material, a sales model that leads to content being delivered to students on the first day of class and then being charged for it as part of their tuition and fee payments. Many colleges have adopted inclusive access models—while publishers like Pearson, McGraw Hill and Cengage have made them part of their switch to digital—to ensure students can access books at a discounted price. The model has its skeptics, though, who question whether it actually saves universities money and also suggest that it may limit students’ ability to participate in secondary publishing markets—where they could buy used books, for example.

But in many cases, students are not getting required textbooks, with the report saying that 27 percent skipped purchasing course materials for at least one class.

Those students didn’t actually save much money—about $24 on average—and are more likely to consider dropping out, according to the researchers behind the report. Students are likely making purchases based on whether they think the materials will be valuable, something they may have a different opinion on than their professors, Hershman says.

Technology Spending

Course materials are just one part of student expenses, though.

Students spent $1,203 on academic spending—a category that includes technology, supplies and course materials, according to the college stores report.

Their estimate is roughly consistent with findings from the College Board’s annual report about student spending on similar materials, which gave the figure $1,240.

Spending on technology shot up during the pandemic’s forced switch to remote learning. And it stayed high last year when the average student plunked down $700 on technology. That includes laptop purchases by first-year students—which increases tech spending threefold compared to later college years. After the first year of college, students typically spend less on technology, according to the report. And students who didn’t buy a computer shelled out about $357 on other forms of tech and related accessories.

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