Dylan Miller spent $495 on college textbooks at the University of Northern Iowa – $167.50 for a linear algebra textbook – in the spring semester just ending, yet said he might have used the books, perhaps, once a month.

Dylan Miller Credit: Sofia Legaspi/for IowaWatch

The internet? Used it close to two hours each day, he said, raising the issue of why he still buys textbooks.

“That’s a great question,” Miller, 20, a sophomore this spring semester from Homestead, Iowa, and studying for a major in actuarial science, said. “I will not be buying textbooks next semester.”

A lot of college students are avoiding textbooks costs that generally can range from around $20 for a book on writing grant proposals to $400 for a physics book, a spring IowaWatch/College Media Journalism Project revealed. In lieu of buying, they rent books, which can save an average $29 per book, depending on the subject. They also rely on information they can find on the internet, sometimes as a first reference.

E-books? Hardly ever, interviews on seven Iowa campuses this semester revealed. Ask students if they get value for what they pay for college textbooks and you’ll often get responses like Alexander Crehan’s:

“Absolutely not,” Crehan, 21, a William Penn University junior from Troy, Illinois, said.

Crehan, with a major in business management, said he paid $827.45 for all of his textbooks this spring semester. The most expensive was Robbins & Coulter, Management, 14th Edition, for $240.25.

“I hardly ever use my business management book,” he said. “I do use my accounting, macroeconomics and psychology textbooks every day. On the occasion, I will use my business ethics book but it’s not very often.”

Educators and even workers at stores selling the books share students’ concerns about textbook costs. The average price of a new college textbook rose from $58 in 2011-12 to $82 in 2014-15 before dropping slightly to $80 in 2015-16, the National Association of College Stores reports.

Textbooks used by students interviewed in the IowaWatch/College Media Journalism Project included $116 for practical guide to early childhood, $167.50 for linear algebra, $200 for sports law, $240 for business management, $251.50 for technical math and $300 for an income and measurement textbook.

The College Board estimated in its most recent report, for 2017-18, that the cost of books plus other course materials a student would need for classes cost an average $1,250 for the school year.  That is a relatively small portion of the estimated $25,290 the College Board estimates it costs to attend a four-year public college and $50,900 to attend a four-year private non-profit college in the United States.

In Their Words: Susan Letsch, Buena Vista University

The National Association of College Stores shows college students paying an average of $579 for required course materials and another $506 for technology and school supplies for the 2016-17 academic year. The costs for required course materials only is down from $701 in 2007-08.

The reasons for lower required costs boil down to students increasing their use of free or digital school materials and renting course books, the association reports.

The days when every student decides against buying textbooks have not gone away. Interviews in the IowaWatch/College Media Journalism Project showed that the more technical the major, the more likely a student purchased and wanted to keep a textbook. These majors were in fields such as chemistry, mathematics, pre-med and computer science.

In Their Words: Sarah Timmerman, University of Northern Iowa

“Renting’s not too bad but I’ve bought, I would say, every major class that I’ve had,” Josh Hoffman, 21, a graduating senior from Buena Vista University, said. His major is athletic training.

“I mean, yeah, they’re expensive but I need them so I just kind of have to pay for them,” Hoffman, originally from Grinnell, Iowa, said. “I always look on three or four different websites to see which one’s got the cheapest one I can buy. So I normally bounce between Chegg and Amazon and EBay if they actually have it.”

Alex Kruse, a Loras College junior this school year, said he uses textbooks often for his majors in English literature and philosophy. “I usually buy the books,” Kruse, 21, from Dubuque, Iowa, said. “If I can buy them used, I do.”

Kiara Nicole Davis Credit: Submitted photo for IowaWatch

Kiara Nicole Davis, a sophomore from Thibodaux, Louisiana, at William Penn University this past year, said she used a $15.20 calculus textbook every day, weekends included. “I got more use out of my calculus textbook than what I paid for it,” she said.

But other books cost far more – $50 for her lifespan textbook, for example. “I do not think college books should be so expensive, especially considering we only use them for eight weeks, others only for one semester,” Davis, 19, said. “Half of the books don’t even have the right information that we need or is just not helpful.”

Jamie Pritzker, 22, said she didn’t buy any books during her fall 2017 semester at the University of Iowa, where she was wrapping up her college studies this month with a major in cinema studies and minor in criminology.

“Throughout my time here at the University of Iowa, I only ever really used about three books,” she said. “Three. Can you imagine that? What a waste of time and hard earned money.”


Student journalists in the IowaWatch/College Media Journalism Project interviewed more than three dozen students at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, the University of Northern Iowa, Buena Vista University, Loras College, Simpson College and William Penn University in the middle of the spring semester this year.

Simpson students, for example, said they have spent between $100 and $400, maybe more, on textbooks per semester. Victoria Jordan, 19, a sophomore at the Indianola college this past school year, spent $400 this past semester. Her most expensive book costing $190 total, with an online access code, was for a chemistry class, she said.

“My chemistry book, I don’t really use but we use the online for homework,” Jordan, an environmental science major from Newton, Iowa, and taking a minor in art, said mid-year while classes were in session. “I use my Spanish textbook two days for class and over the weekend for homework. My other books, I probably spend an hour, or maybe two, for homework two times a week.”

In Their Words: Clarice Kies, Loras College

Switching majors during college can add to the costs as students’ purchase textbooks for one field of study, only to need books from a different one later.

Joaquin Reyes, finishing his senior year, began at the University of Iowa as a pre-med student before transitioning to computer science his sophomore year. Reyes, 21, of Bartlett, Illinois, said he spent $400 to $500 on textbooks in each of his first three semesters. Reyes said he knew better to find cheaper options after his third semester, when he switched to computer science.

He said freshmen are vulnerable to spending too much on textbooks because they are not as aware of cheaper options such as renting, buying used books or buying from websites like Chegg and Amazon.

In Their Words: Lucas Smith, William Penn University

How much professors teach and assign from the textbooks varies from one professor to the next. Some assign the whole book, while others assign sections.

“I usually read what I need to. We talk about them in class and there’s always notes given in class, so I don’t feel like I need to read from the source,” said Anne Marie Webb, 21, a Simpson junior this past year from Ankeny and studying for majors in religion and music. “I feel like I’m wasting money, but I still feel like I need the hard copy for the future.”

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Heather Dean, course materials manager at the Iowa State University Book Store in Ames, said value is all about how a book is used.

“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.”

In Their Words: Cody West, Iowa State University

Dean said publishers set book prices and that the University Book Store upcharge only is enough to cover operating costs.

A University of Iowa Undergraduate Educational Policy and Curriculum Committee required that professors order textbooks for the next semester before summer break, to give students more time to calculate the cost of their textbooks and find the money to purchase them.

Risks exist with that approach. While students can plan, professors risk using outdated materials, Rachel Williams, associate professor in the gender, women’s and sexuality studies department at the University of Iowa since 1999, said.

Williams is a member of the policy and curriculum committee and did not require textbooks in the spring semester. She primarily uses in her classes scholarly articles and readings obtained through the University of Iowa Library database, as well as current articles, news stories and blog posts. Articles obtained through the library or library databases can be reproduced and distributed for educational purposes.

In Their Words: Erin VanLaningham, Loras College, With A Faculty Perspective

This allows her to teach the most current, relevant information for her classes, she said. It also allows her to tailor her teaching materials to her courses better without making students purchase a textbook that may only have a few relevant chapters.

Erin VanLaningham, associate professor of English, Loras College Credit: Amber Krieg/for IowaWatch

It wasn’t that long ago that the internet was considered in academia a suspect place for information. But source material is posted there, and college teachers are willing to point students in its direction.

Erin VanLaningham, associate professor of English at Loras College sometimes sends her students to the internet instead of forcing them to buy an entire book of short stories for just one assigned story in her class. “I’ll definitely post a link instead of requiring students to purchase the entire book,” she said.

Iowa State University administrators estimate that undergraduate students will spend more than $500 on textbooks and supplies each semester in the 2018-19 academic year. A student can spend as much as $347 at the Iowa State University Bookstore for “Solid State Physics” and as little as $7 on “Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass.”

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Austin Claussen, 22, a graduating Iowa State senior in industrial technology, said he had to choose between two required books this spring because he could not afford both. “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, from Davenport, Iowa, said.

Dalton Grell, 22, a fifth-year senior this school year studying supply chain management, got creative when he saw a required textbook, “Spreadsheet Model and Decision Analysis,” that cost $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, from North Liberty, Iowa, said.

Grell had a recommendation to students who are new to purchasing textbooks and holding a list of required books. “Wait until you go to the first couple days of class, see what the professor says,” he said.

IowaWatch’s Lyle Muller contributed to this report.


This IowaWatch story was republished by The Courier (Waterloo, IA) and The Hawk Eye (Burlington, IA) and portions were published by the Iowa State Daily (Ames, IA) and LCTV at Loras College (Dubuque, IA) under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners.


Bookstore Works On Way To Make College Textbooks Affordable
Moves At The University Of Iowa To Reduce Spanish Textbook Costs
Dealing With The Textbook Squeeze On One Iowa College Campus, video and podcast reports
The Dash for Cash: The Cost of Written Words
The 2018 IowaWatch/College Media Journalism Project:

Student journalists working with IowaWatch conducted more than three dozen interviews in February and March for this report. Those journalists are:
Lauren Wade, Maria Curi, Helaina Thompson and Hannah Archambeau at the University of Iowa; K. Rambo, Alex Connor, Caitlin Yamada, Jill O’Brien and Naye Valenzuela at Iowa State University; Amber Krieg at Loras College; Sabrina Bryant, Keegan VanDevender, Jasmin Sonnenschein, Jace Neugebauer, Jimmy Ott and Helene Larsen at William Penn University; Kylee Deering, Olivia Wieseler, Emily Kenny, Kyle Wiebers, Tyler Brunner, Madeleine McCormick and Alyssa Donnelly at Buena Vista University; Sofia Legaspi and Anna Flanders at the University of Northern Iowa; and Blake Carlson and Zoe Seiler at Simpson College.
Special thanks to Andrea Frantz, Buena Vista; Matt Wagner, William Penn; Craig Schaefer, Loras College; and Emily Barske and Mark Witherspoon, Iowa State Daily.

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