News Release

Report shows students are falling behind on buying textbooks during COVID-19

Course materials remain unaffordable and inaccessible, especially for food insecure students, during the pandemic
For Immediate Release

AUSTIN -- Students have been struggling with the high cost of textbooks for years. For vulnerable students, the pandemic has made the problem much worse. U.S. PIRG released a survey on Wednesday of more than 5,000 students at 82 colleges and universities, revealing the devastating effects that the pandemic has had on students’ ability to fully participate in class.

Most concerningly, the report revealed that 82 percent of students who experienced hunger during the pandemic had been unable to afford necessary textbooks and were worried about long-term impacts on their grades. 

“It’s unacceptable that students are at risk of failing a class because they don’t have $100 to pay for their homework,” said U.S. PIRG’s Affordable Textbook Campaign Director Cailyn Nagle. “The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored this inequity by making materials more out of reach for students - but it will not disappear when the pandemic ends.”

Textbooks have been one of the biggest out-of-pocket costs for students for several decades. The problem has taken a new turn with the rise of access codes, which offer temporary access to course readings, tests, quizzes and homework assignments hidden behind a paywall. Access codes deny the opportunity for cheaper options and make a student’s ability to succeed in a class contingent on their ability to pay. The pandemic has also made high-speed internet access a necessity, but it remains out of reach for many due to financial or geographic barriers.

The report included the following key findings:

  1. In the fall of 2020, 65 percent of students reported that they skipped a textbook purchase, even though 90 percent of them were worried that it would impact their grades.

  2. We found that 21 percent of students reported skipping an access code purchase. This directly lowers their potential course grade, since access codes often contain homework and other required assignments.

  3. COVID-19 impacted 79 percent of students in some way that hurt their ability to meet their basic needs. Of students surveyed, 20 percent had lost jobs during the pandemic, and those students were significantly more likely to skip textbook or access code purchases than students who did not lose jobs.

  4. One in 10 students reported that they did not have reliable internet access, and those students were 9 percent more likely to skip buying access codes and 8 percent more likely to fail a course because of expensive materials than the general student population.

  5. One in 10 students reported skipping meals to cut costs during the pandemic. Even more alarming, 38 percent of these students skipped buying access codes -- nearly twice the rate of their peers. To make matters worse, this is a conservative estimate of students who are food insecure. There are thousands of students who cannot choose to prioritize either health or academic success -- they have been priced out of both.

The report also lays out several recommendations for legislators, institutions, faculty and student governments to target the unsustainable prices of course materials, improve internet access, and support students’ basic needs in the pandemic.

In the 87th Texas Legislature, HB 1027 from Representative Tan Parker and HB 1707 from Representative Donna Howard both aim to require disclosure around textbook costs and textbook billing practices. 

“Considering the scale of the student debt crisis and the long-term upward trend in tuition costs, this situation is more than a shame -- it’s an urgent problem colleges, universities and legislators must solve if they want to improve student success and help students graduate,” said Lauren Banister, TexPIRG Campaign Associate “These bills are easy to implement solutions that would provide students with more information to financially plan for their semester and make course decisions that work best for them.” 

Read the full report and sign up for our Friday report briefing here.

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