As week two of the term came to a close, I received an email that the two-week free trial for one of my online textbooks for biology class was ending and I needed to purchase the full program in order to stay in my course. I had been dreading this moment since the day I enrolled in the section, logging in each day and gingerly avoiding the red warning messages as I navigated to the homework tab. 10 days remaining of your free trial… five days remaining… three days remaining… purchase the full textbook to stay in the course.
It is no secret that college is expensive, but students must also handle hidden costs not included in their tuition payments. Among these are the costs of living, such as food and housing, with others being costs associated with different academic programs. In any case, with prices everywhere on the rise, students are being asked to pay more and more, and nobody seems to be noticing.
Okay, sure, maybe I was being dramatic about my biology textbook, but even as I knew the inevitable was coming, I still chose the 14 day grace period on the first day of class. Why? Partially because spacing out all the textbook payments I have at the start of the term is less of a financial stress, and partially because I felt like I needed 14 days to come to terms with the price of a 16 week digital course that I would only be enrolled in for 10 weeks.
Also, I should note that I’m being general with the term “textbook.” Really, what I am obtaining as I reluctantly navigate to the “payment details” screen is a digital textbook, my homework for the term and a few study resources. Which all sounds good and fine, maybe even worth the extra money, but I (and the rest of the students enrolled in this course) already pay to access our homework for the term and a few study resources. We pay tuition for that. Right?
Having to pay for textbooks has been a source of frustration for college students for years and has encouraged students in recent years to get smarter about how they get their materials. College students actually reported spending less on their textbooks in the 2022-23 school year, in a study done by the National Association of College Stores. Another source, Education Data Initiative, cites that on average eBooks are 31.9% less expensive than hard copies. Even if a student does choose to purchase a hard-copy or digital PDF from the publisher, owning the book means they can resell it to future students in order to partially make back their investment. If a student resells their book, or chooses to find it somewhere online for free, the publisher sees no profit. This could very likely be an explanation for the recent push to get students to purchase entire online courses, instead of just buying a supplementary text for the lecture. In 2019, when Pearson announced they would stop producing hard copies of college textbooks, they projected average prices of $40 per e-textbook, and $79 for full, digital courses. A lot of these programs contain the course’s homework and exams, so now if a student wishes to skip out on buying the textbook, it will cost them their grade.
Three main publishers, Pearson, Cengage and McGraw-Hill, have control of 80 percent of the $3.10 billion textbook industry.
I sat down with a few Drexel students to hear their thoughts on their non-tuition related costs.
Second-year biological sciences major, Cristina Burz, averages about $200 a term on textbooks. “This term I bought something for every single class. Almost all my textbook purchases are to do my online homework. I essentially pay to do my homework.”
“If I had actually bought all of the textbooks listed on my syllabi, I easily would have dropped $300-$400 a term on textbooks. Usually, I would wait until the first or second week of class, to see if I actually needed it,” said Maritza Desavornin Lohman, a recent graduate who majored in communications.
Lohman did not feel like the prices of textbooks were always justified. “For MATH 101 we had to buy, like, a $150 textbook that I never used, only so we could access the homework.”
A lot of the students I spoke to mentioned that the websites they pay for to access their homework are often not user-friendly. “I also feel like, half the time, the online homework and textbook platforms I use are very slow and structured poorly so I often waste time when studying or doing homework for the website errors,” Burz said, when asked if the prices of her online courses were justified.
While some students are frustrated over paying twice to participate in a course, once for tuition and again to access their homework, other students face extremely high prices for essential course materials and subscriptions. Shannon Woods, a third-year graphic design major, weighed in on how students in the Westphal College of Media Arts and Design are often responsible for the price of all of their required supplies. “Printing at Westphal adds up, and then everything with supplies… [it’s] probably around $250 a term depending on the classes I’m taking. One thing that’s actually kind of ridiculous: any other college you go to, they pay your Adobe subscriptions, and we have to pay out of pocket. That’s my whole entire major.”
The “hidden costs” of being a college student—course materials, but also groceries, transportation and housing—cause a great deal of stress to students who already are dealing with rising tuition costs.
While there are cheaper options just outside of University City, many students agreed that the already steep cost of groceries was higher than what they saw in their hometown stores or elsewhere in Philly.
“Heirloom, the one kinda by the Wawa, is so expensive. A college campus is like a bubble. Businesses on college campuses expect students to stay in the bubble… a lot of businesses know that college students will pay more because it’s all that’s on campus.” Lohman said, about grocery prices in the city.
Nationwide, it tends to be the case that groceries bought at stores within college towns are more expensive than those bought outside of them.
Compared to those in her hometown or outside of University City, Woods finds that groceries in college towns are “So much more expensive. Heirloom market is so expensive for no reason. Not a lot of kids have cars, not a lot of kids can travel that far and carry that many bags, so that’s the closest option, and they can hike up their prices as much as they want.”
It is a fact of today’s economy that prices are rising everywhere, and the hidden costs of college—food, supplies, textbooks, online programs and even rent– are not immune to this. The question is: will universities be immune to the stress these extra costs, or will frustrated students start to call for a change?