The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

Rise of textbook prices a result of economic factors, including inflation

The cost of educational books and supplies is up 59% since 2003

Jada Edmark, a junior nursing student at UNC, said she is already paying $600 for this semester’s textbooks, and two of her classes have yet to announce their required materials.

According to a 2018 survey conducted by textbook publishing company Cengage, 30 percent of students avoided traveling to see their families and 43 percent of students skipped meals during the semester to offset their coursework expenses.

The steep prices of textbooks and educational materials could be caused by a number of economic factors, Chris Roark, an assistant teaching professor of economics at UNC, said. These factors include inflation, high demand and supply-side shortages on the materials used to make textbooks, he said. 

Roark analyzed data from the Federal Reserve Bank and discovered that the average price of academic materials has increased by 106 percent since 1993. 

“Most of that rise, though, occurred prior to 2016,” he said. “Since 2016, they’ve kind of stayed stagnant, so whatever was driving textbook prices is not necessarily related to the current inflationary period.”

Despite the disconnect between current inflation in the United States and the relative stabilization of textbook prices since 2016, some students still believe textbooks are unusually expensive. 

One course, Nursing 351: Pathophysiology/Pharmacology Across the Lifespan, requires two books that cost over $100 each at Student Stores. Nursing students like Edmark could pay more than $200 for this single course.

In his research, Roark found that the price of textbooks increased more quickly than the growth of overall inflation in the United States between 2003 and 2023.

“If I go back over that same period, if we go back to July or August 2003, we can see that [inflation] has not grown by over 100 percent,” Roark said. “So prices by themselves have not been keeping up with the price of textbooks, which is why textbooks are seeming so expensive.”

Between 1977 and 2023, the cumulative price of the dollar rose by about 404 percent in the United States. The price of course materials rose over 1,000 percent in that same period, outpacing increases in both the housing market and the cost of medical services. 

Edmark said her textbook costs per semester increased as she advanced from her first year to junior year. She used to spend about $400 total on several books every semester compared to the $600-$800 she’ll spend this fall, she said . 

“In my first two years of undergrad, that sounded right, because I had six or seven books,” Edmark said. “The fact that it skyrocketed to an extra $200 – possibly $300 – is insane. It definitely needs to be lowered.”

However, students struggling to pay for expensive course materials have more options available in 2023. Rental and digital copies of textbooks are usually cheaper than brand new editions, and resources like Rice University’s OpenStax offer many free college textbooks at an introductory level. 

For those in the UNC System, the Office of Scholarly Publishing Services within UNC Press offers free digital textbooks and materials.

“We decided to create an office called the Office of Scholarly Publishing Services that would help units, departments and research centers throughout the UNC System publish open-access textbooks and other educational resources,” John McLeod, director and chief operating officer of OSPS, said.

In the future, McLeod said more open-access textbooks will be made available to students in the UNC System — alleviating the burden that purchasing textbooks places on students.

He said OSPS is working with faculty on a number of textbooks, which should be published within the next three to six months. 

“We’re always looking into taking on more projects when we have the bandwidth to do more, so it’s really a matter of if there are faculty out there in the UNC System who have content and are ready to work with us on turning it into a textbook,” McLeod said. “We’re here to help them out.”

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

@dailytarheel |