According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, college textbook prices in the United States have, on average, increased by approximately 88% between January 2006 and July 2016,. In response to this rising trend, the college has been making efforts to make textbooks more affordable to students. While students often turn to finding alternatives to purchasing books, the college’s administration, bookstore, and Textbook Affordability Committee continue to seek more affordable ways to provide textbooks for students. The most recent push to cut the cost of textbooks is the reduction of the prices of print textbooks in the bookstore.
“In response to the high cost of textbooks, we have been steadily making changes on several fronts,” Paula Dale, Director of the Swarthmore Campus and Community Store, wrote in an e-mail. “Lowering the price of printed textbooks in the Store is the most recent change.”
According to Dale, textbook prices have been on the college administration’s radar for several years. In the past, the bookstore enacted efforts to make textbooks more affordable such as introducing rental options, lower-priced electronic formats, investing in a website for students to compare the prices of books and purchase them from various providers, and teaming up with a national wholesaler to buy textbooks back from students at the end of the semester.
According to Dale, the store management realized they could make a strong contribution to the efforts to make textbooks more affordable by cutting prices across the board for the spring semester of 2018. Dale said, depending on the book publisher, each student saved approximately 20% as compared to the fall semester of 2017.
Despite these savings, students who get their books from the bookstore haven’t necessarily noticed an immediate decrease in prices.
“While I appreciate the effort to make textbooks cheaper, I didn’t really notice a difference in prices,” Gabriella Small ’19 said.
Small chooses to get her books at the bookstore because she doesn’t trust online sources, such as Amazon, for used books. As a physics major, she feels that the used book prices in the bookstore are basically the same price as the used books listed online.
On the other hand, Lia D’Alessandro ’21 prefers to get her books as soon as possible and therefore buys them through Amazon Prime. According to her, the books she needed for this semester weren’t in the bookstore and she did not opt for the e-books because she prefers having a hard copy of all her books.
“Prime is convenient and faster than the community store, and the used books on Amazon were cheaper than the used books in the store,” she said. “Also, since they ran out of used books [for my class], I didn’t want to make them order a new set of books for me.”
Shaoni White ’21 also found that there were no used books left when she made a trip to the bookstore at the beginning of the semester. Although she usually uses Amazon to get her textbooks, the time it would take for her textbooks to be delivered would have inhibited her ability to complete one of her assignments on time. She ended up purchasing a new copy at the bookstore to save time.
“I got a book that was about $100 for about $50, and for that I am grateful, but my reading was due on Friday and I had no time to get the book,” she said.
White expressed that the lack of used books at the bookstore did not bother her because there was an insignificant difference between the new and used books anyway. She also said that, without the time pressure of having to finish an assignment, she would have ordered books from Amazon because of convenience and cheaper prices.
Rohit Nair ’19, however, usually finds a way around having to pay for expensive textbooks either from the bookstore or from Amazon. He was able to find alternatives for all of his fall semester of 2017 classes and didn’t buy any textbooks.
“I usually find PDF copies online or will just use the reserve copies kept in the libraries,” Nair said.
While Nair didn’t have to purchase any textbooks last semester, he did have to buy some books for his honors Economics seminars for the spring. He, like D’Alessandro and White, found that there were few copies of the used books left at the bookstore.
Amazon provides options that influence students’ decisions as to where they will purchase their books, and the relationship between prices on Amazon compared to the used book prices at the bookstore can vary. D’Alessandro and White find Amazon prices to be significantly cheaper than the used book prices at the bookstore while Small and Nair feel that there is little difference between the prices of used books on Amazon and those at the store. While it is possible to find considerably cheaper options on Amazon, Dale feels there is a more consistent, affordable supply of textbooks at the bookstore.
“Using the Store’s own textbook price-comparison tools, we can see first-hand Amazon’s pricing volatility; their textbook prices rise and fall, based on demand. Some students might score a cheaper textbook, but others won’t have that option,” Dale wrote.
The college’s faculty plays a role in helping the bookstore obtain more affordable, used textbooks by giving them time to find cheaper books. Previously, Megan Brown, an Assistant Professor in the History department, has encountered students who could not afford the books for her class and had been too shy to say anything until midterms or other big assignments were on the horizon. Thus, she tries to stay aware of textbook affordability and access to alternatives.
“I felt bad about not knowing about this and not being able to help find alternatives for students,” Professor Brown said. “I try to be sensitive about how students can access readings.”
According to Professor Brown, the bookstore helps lower the cost of textbooks by asking for book lists from professors ahead of time and ordering books months in advance when they are cheaper.
“Our faculty members have made a significant contribution toward lower prices by submitting more of their course materials lists on time. When the Store gets the list on time, we can source more used copies, which are significantly cheaper than new [copies],” Dale wrote.
Dale believes there will be continued collaboration by the store management and faculty to make access to class materials cheaper and more convenient.
“Our next steps will require the guidance and expertise of our faculty members. We would like to increase the use of less-expensive formats, such as electronic texts and Swarthmore-created Open Education Resources,” Dale wrote.
According to Dale, the college is also exploring inclusive-access options that would automatically give classes of students digital copies at a discounted rate as opposed to having individual students buy books on their own.
“We are interested in various alternative pricing models, such as Inclusive Access, where a text is pre-purchased for all the students in a specific class, giving the College bargaining power with the publisher for lower prices and, not insignificantly, ensuring that all the students have their text in hand on the first day of class,” Dale wrote.
According to Dale, it is unlikely that there will be any further cuts to the cost of textbooks unless the prices in the market go down. However, the administration, bookstore, and Textbook Affordability Committee are continuing efforts to find cheaper alternatives for purchasing textbooks.