High textbook costs hurt VCU students more than those at other doctoral universities

February 6, 2023
A student looking at the labels on the book shelves at James Branch Cabell Library.

VCU students often feel the impact of high textbook costs more severely than their counterparts at other public and private Virginia colleges and universities, according to data from a statewide survey.

In Fall 2021, more than 600 randomly selected VCU students participated in a statewide survey exploring the relationship between textbook costs and educational equity. A newly released report from VCU Libraries’ Open and Affordable Course Content Initiative shares the VCU results of the Virginia Course Materials Survey.

Course materials play a central role in all educational experiences, helping guide students’ learning. However, obtaining these important materials often poses a barrier for students. Textbook prices have increased at over four times the rate of inflation since 2006, outpacing other categories of goods and services including tuition, healthcare, and housing (via Bureau of Labor Statistics). VCU Libraries has been working to reduce textbook costs for VCU students since 2016. Through the Open and Affordable Course Content Initiative, they provide education, advocacy, and support for faculty looking to transition to zero cost course materials. 

VIVA, Virginia’s Academic Library Consortium, wanted to get a better understanding of the full impact of these high textbook costs. It undertook a survey exploring the relationship between student success and course materials, cost savings, and educational equity for Virginia students. Such a survey would provide localized data to better understand the impact of course materials costs for Virginia students and would help shape VIVA’s open and affordable course content programs

VCU Libraries played an active role in this work. Hillary Miller, scholarly communications librarian, and Jessica Kirschner, open educational resource librarian, served on the task force that developed and administered the survey. Kirschner also assisted in authoring VIVA’s final report on the findings of the survey.

“The Virginia Course Materials Survey presents an invaluable opportunity to gain insight into the true impact of textbook costs in Virginia and at VCU specifically,” Kirschner said. “While the Open and Affordable Course Content Initiative has been working on textbook affordability for  more than 5 years, our efforts were grounded in national surveys or local anecdotal evidence. This survey presented an opportunity to learn how much and in what ways textbook costs impact VCU students. The results also help us shape the resources whose creation we support and ensure they best benefit VCU students’ learning needs.”

All Virginia institutions were invited to participate in the survey. Ultimately, 41 institutions, including VCU, opted to participate, with 5,600 students responding in total. At VCU, 603 VCU responses were received. All participating institutions were provided with data gathered from their institution’s respondents. Due to the IRB approved protocols and efforts to maintain respondent anonymity, institutional data is only available on the summary level.

A new report from VCU Libraries’ Open and Affordable Course Content Initiative shares and analyzes results from VCU respondents. Ultimately, the survey shows that VCU students feel the impact of textbook costs more acutely than their peers across Virginia and at other Virginia doctoral institutions. Some highlights include: 

  • 80% of VCU respondents are worried about textbook costs.
  • 81% of VCU respondents indicated that they have not purchased a textbook due to textbook costs. This is 10% higher than other respondents, with 66% of Virginia respondents, 69% of respondents from other Virginia doctoral institutions. The latter are in line with other local and national surveys, which tend to circle around 65% of respondents indicating they did not purchase the textbook because of cost.
  • 45% of VCU respondents have earned a poor grade because they could not purchase a textbook due to cost. This is 10% above their counterparts with 34% of Virginia respondents and 33% of non-VCU doctoral institutions indicating the same.
  • 25% of VCU respondents said they selected a major due to textbook costs, in comparison to 16% of Virginia respondents and 14% of other Virginia doctorals.

The survey also shows that textbook costs also heavily impact course selection, course completion, and student academic success. These responses are in line with other anecdotal data collected by VCU Libraries, such as is available in The Impact of Textbook Costs: VCU Student Stories, an interview series with VCU students released in 2021. 

The VCU Libraries report is available on Scholars Compass, VCU’s Institutional Repository. Included is an executive summary, full report, and data set for the VCU summary level data, available as percentages, and select student quotes from the free response. Some questions also include percentages for all Virginia respondents (includes VCU responses) and Virginia doctoral institutions (does not include VCU responses). The latter is reflective of designation at the time of survey dissemination (VCU, UVA, ODU, GMU, Virginia Tech, and William and Mary).

For those who wish to learn more about the connection between textbook costs and educational equity, VIVA’s final report includes a detailed analysis of areas of concern, or characteristics which traditionally have been shown to feel the impact of textbook costs more acutely. VIVA defines these are:

  • Using Pell Grant funding to fund the respondent’s education (a proxy for low-socio-economic class per other similar studies)
  • Using education loans to fund the respondent’s education
  • Using a full time job to fund the respondent’s education
  • Race/ethnicity other than or in addition to white (defined by VIVA as Non-White-Only)
  • First Generation student
  • Currently taking care of children, parents, or other family members, and 
  • Having a disability

VIVA’s results show that those students with areas of concern more severely feel the impact of textbook costs, echoing other studies in the field. The impact also increases when students have more than one area of concern.

Learn more about VCU Libraries’ support for textbook affordability

VCU Libraries’ Open and Affordable Course Content Initiative provides education, advocacy, and direct support for the adoption, customization and creation of open educational resources or other free course content. This includes managing the Affordable Course Content Awards. To learn more or explore the possibility of using or creating OER, visit the initiative’s website.

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