More College Students Are Downloading Course Materials for Free—Or Skipping Them Entirely

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Use of free course materials among college students is up, with 22 percent downloading at least one such resource during the spring 2019 semester, according to research published Wednesday by the National Association of College Stores.

That’s an all-time high, and a big increase since the fall of 2015, when only 3 percent of students reported downloading free course materials. The percent of students who reported downloading free materials has increased each semester since. That figure includes texts procured legally, like open educational resources (known as OER), and illegally, such as pirated files shared through torrent websites. The most recent data NACS has on the latter behavior is from the fall of 2017, when 4 percent of respondents reported obtaining materials through illegal downloads.

The practice of using pirated resources may be more prevalent in reality, however, since students can share such files in multiple ways, said Richard Hershman, vice president of government relations for the college-store association in an email interview: “Certainly publishers feel this is a major problem.”

The survey includes responses from nearly 20,000 college students at 41 four-year and two-year institutions across 20 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces.

Its findings are of special interest in light of recent shifts in the textbook industry. For example, in mid-July, publishing giant Pearson announced it will adopt a “digital first” strategy for updating college course materials. And earlier this year, two of the world’s largest publishers of textbooks, Cengage and McGraw-Hill, announced plans to merge, and plan to offer a subscription-based service that combines their digital libraries in one package.

Despite the reported increased use of free resources, most students still spend money on college course materials, either through purchasing texts outright or renting them from bookstores or online marketplaces.

However, the average amount spent in the 2018-2019 school year, $415, fell from $484 the previous term, according to the report. The decrease follows a trend of near-steady spending decline going back at least 10 years to 2007-2008, when students reported spending an average of $701 on course materials.

(Even after adding in the average of nearly $419 that the survey says students spent on technology, these figures are significantly lower than the more than $1,200 average spending on books and supplies that The College Board estimates for full-time undergraduate students.)

In a press briefing Wednesday, Hershman cited several possible factors influencing falling spending. One is that college textbook price growth has dipped below general inflation rates in recent years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index. Another is the continued popularity of renting textbooks and relying on used, instead of new, materials.

A third may be the growth of so-called inclusive-access programs. In these deals, colleges order published materials in bulk, then charge students a per-course fee that grants them access to all of the required texts and tools. This approach typically offers students lower prices than they can get at retail stores on new books, but some students complain that it stops them from finding lower prices on their own.

Colleges may be interested in inclusive access deals in part to address another notable finding from the NACS study: More students are relying on their own judgment about whether assigned materials are truly necessary.

More than a third of students reported showing up for the first day of class without any of their assigned materials. The top reason why? Sixty-four percent said they wanted to wait to “see if I really needed materials” before acquiring them.

The high price of books was the top reason given by students who decided not to obtain the required texts, but 38 percent said they didn’t want them or didn’t think they’d need them.

This finding is echoed in research conducted by Barnes & Noble College, which runs more than 1,400 physical and virtual campus book stores in the U.S.

“Students want to wait to see if the professor is really going to use it and if it’s really going to be necessary for class,” says Lisa Malat, COO of Barnes & Noble College.

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