Average Cost of College Textbooks: Full Statistics

The amount of money college students spend on textbooks has dropped since the pandemic. Keep reading to find the average cost of books for college.
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Lyss Welding is a higher education analyst and data writer for BestColleges who specializes in translating massive data sets and finding statistics that matter to students. Lyss has worked in academic research, curriculum design, and program evaluati...
Published on March 27, 2023
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Data Summary

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    In 2020-2021, the average cost of books and supplies for a first-year college student was $1,226.[1]
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    In 2021-2022, survey data shows students spent roughly $340 a year on course materials including books.[2]
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    College students spent an average of $38 per class on course materials.Note Reference [2]
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    The average student spent $700 on technology for college, and the average first-year spent $980.Note Reference [2]
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    The percentage of college faculty using free open educational resources grew from 5% in 2015-2016 to 22% in 2021-2022.[3]

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, prices for college textbooks increased by 7% between 2020 and 2023.[4] That's faster than tuition inflation, and it's enough to make a dent in any college student's budget.

If you're preparing for college, here's what you need to know about the average cost of college books and what you can realistically expect to pay.

How Much Are College Books and Supplies?

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) collects data about student costs based on schools' estimates. In 2020-2021, schools estimated that books and supplies cost first-year, full-time undergraduate students roughly $1,000-$1,250 on average.

Public and private nonprofit colleges reported similar average costs for books and supplies. The average was slightly lower at private for-profit colleges.

Average Cost of Books and Supplies for First-Year, Full-Time Undergraduates, 2020-2021
School Type Average Cost
All Schools $1,226
Public $1,230
Private Nonprofit $1,228
Private For-Profit $1,065
Source: NCESNote Reference [1]

What Do Students Really Spend on Textbooks?

Just because course materials cost $1,200 a year doesn't mean that's what college students pay for books. Those NCES estimates include other supplies, such as technology. Also, students can save money on textbooks by buying them used or renting them.

In a 2022 survey of nearly 12,000 students, the National Association of College Stores (NACS) found:Note Reference [2]

  • In 2021-2022, the average college student spent $339 on course materials including books.
  • That's a 26% decline from the year before when students spent an average of $456 on course materials.
  • Students spent an average of $38 per class for materials.
  • The amount college students spend on course materials has generally declined for the past 15 years.
  • Around 1 in 4 students did not obtain at least one of their course materials.

NACS also found that college student spending on course materials depends on their major.

  • Students in business-related majors, such as marketing or accounting, and students studying political or law-related majors spent an average of over $400 on course materials including textbooks.
  • On average, computer science, math, and undeclared students spent the least at $240-$265.

College E-Textbooks Popularity and Cost: Digital Versus Print

Digital course materials, like e-textbooks have become more popular in recent years and especially after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2022, about half (52%) of students said they use digital course materials more often than before the pandemic.Note Reference [2] These materials include PDF copies of textbooks and interactive textbooks that allow students to highlight material.

But, digital textbooks and other course materials don't necessarily save students money. Per a Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) report, digital texts eliminate some of the ways students can save money on print versions.[5] That is, students may need to purchase an access code for digital materials, preventing them from sharing, borrowing, renting, or buying used materials.

Cost of Technology and Other Supplies for College

Textbooks aren't the only supplies students need for college. According to the NACS, course materials (such as textbooks) made up just 28% of the total cost of books and supplies.Note Reference [2] Students spent more money on technology than textbooks.

  • In 2021-2022, the average student spent $700 on tech devices and products during the academic year.
  • The average first-year student spent $980 on technology.
  • Students spent an average of $164 on other supplies needed for class.

How Do Students Afford Textbooks … and What If They Can't?

Most college students use their own money to pay for books or other course materials.Note Reference [2]

  • 64% of students pay for some or all of their course materials.
  • 31% of students have help from parents or other people.
  • 30% of students use financial aid, such as grants and scholarships.
  • 12% rely on student loans.

What Happens When Students Can't Afford Textbooks?

In 2019, PIRG surveyed students at 83 college campuses, sampling a student population of over 500,000. It found:Note Reference [5]

  • 17% of college students skipped purchasing access codes they needed to complete homework.
  • 63% skipped buying a textbook. (That's way higher than the 25% the NACS estimated in 2022).
  • 90% worried that failing to buy textbooks for class would negatively impact their grade.

In the same survey, students reported doing the following to pay for their textbooks:

  • One-quarter (25%) reported needing to work extra hours.
  • 19% decided which classes to take based on the cost of course materials.
  • 11% said they skipped meals due to the cost of materials.

Did You Know…

In 2022, Congress committed $11 million to the Open Textbooks Pilot program to help make college textbooks more affordable.

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition projects that the pilot program will save students $220 million.

Open Educational Resources: Making College Books Free

Open educational resources (OER) are course materials in the public domain. In other words, they're free for anyone to use, edit, and distribute. OER include textbooks and other curriculum materials. Instructors can use OER in their curricula to help students save money.

In a 2022 Bay View Analytics survey of over 2,700 college faculty and administrators:Note Reference [3]

  • Two-thirds of faculty (64%) agreed or strongly agreed that the price of course materials posed a serious problem for students.
  • Fewer — 46% of faculty —were aware or very aware of OER and creative commons licensing, which allows people to freely distribute college books and other materials.
  • Faculty awareness of OER grew 7% from 2020-2022.
  • 40% of faculty reported using OER in their courses.
  • 22% use OER as required course materials.
  • The percentage of faculty using OER in their courses grew by 17 percentage points from 2015-2016 to 2021-2022.