The return to campus and start of new classes comes with one major expense for students: textbooks. However, with so much material available online for free, textbooks are often unnecessary for students to succeed in the classroom, and they shouldn’t be required.
There are many factors that make textbooks inaccessible for students, and the barriers they have to maneuver to acquire these textbooks are often not worth it in comparison to their quality and use. The issue of access for students of lower socioeconomic statuses is a driving factor in why UMW should encourage professors to only use free, online resources rather than textbooks.
“Just last month, one of my advisees asked me about where he could find some financial resources so he could pay over $500 for his reading materials this semester,” said Associate Professor of Spanish Jose Sainz. “We should all be doing the best we can to use teaching materials that are widely available to students free or at a small and fair cost. The cost of higher education in the US is simply exorbitant and I feel that with textbooks, students and families continue to get the short end of the stick.”
According to the Education Data Initiative, the average yearly cost of textbooks and academic materials in one year is $1,226. The initiative also reported that “25% of students reported they worked extra hours to pay for their books and materials” and “11% skipped meals in order to afford books and course materials.” Therefore, the benefits of having textbooks do not outweigh the stress of having to pay for them.
Inside Higher ED also found that textbook prices can be a cause of lower grades. This is because some students cannot afford to purchase the expensive textbooks needed for classes, leading to missing material needed for quizzes and tests. If free course materials were provided, students would have an equal opportunity to excel in their classes, independent of their financial situation.
Beyond that, the fact of the matter is that textbooks are no longer needed. Some students simply don’t see the use of textbooks anymore, especially due to how they are currently used in classes.
“Textbooks don’t usually help and aren’t necessary,” said Olivia Mallory, a sophomore psychology major. “I think they can be useful, but they are not used the right way by professors. They should use them as aids to help their own teaching instead of either not using them at all or over-using them instead of teaching themselves.”
While every professor utilizes materials in a different way, having resources such as presentations, articles and other course-related documents on Canvas renders the need for textbooks obsolete. Many readings can also be found for free through the UMW library’s website and other resources like Google Scholar. Having the internet full of videos, summaries and explanations about unlimited topics at students’ fingertips also renders textbooks obsolete.
“Unless a professor assigns homework from the textbook or it’s an actual book about a specific topic discussed in the class, I don’t really think they help me with coursework,” said freshman political science major Tonia Attie. “To study for quizzes and tests, I generally look through class presentations on Canvas, my own notes, or educational videos about that topic.”
Sainz uses free, open access resources whenever possible in his classes. “This also means that sometimes I had to make changes to my syllabus but that is not a deal breaker for me,” he said. “I also understand that this route may not be possible in all disciplines. Nonetheless, I do believe that it is imperative that we continue to look for ways to reduce the financial burden on students and it seems to me that using open access resources is a start.”
Additionally, for majors where advances and new findings are constantly taking place, the information in textbooks may quickly become outdated.
“If the textbooks are for a numbers class, it can be helpful with exercises,” senior business administration major Molly Walsh said. “Otherwise, the data goes out of date as soon as it’s printed.”
For her sociology of education class, junior sociology major Alexis Cervantes did not have to pay for any textbooks—all materials were provided for free online. “I like it because I like annotating online and it’s less stuff I have to carry around, plus I don’t have to worry about losing it or having to return it.”
Many students wish they had access to less expensive, online resources rather than traditional textbooks.
When asked about access to textbooks and whether or not they are a needed expense, Attie said, “I think students should be given more access to online textbooks, ones that do not cost more than a physical copy.”
In addition to eliminating the expense, online resources are also more environmentally friendly than printed textbooks. “It saves paper, saves ink, and reduces the amount of things that students need to carry from class to class,” Attie said.
The ability to have all of your materials in one place—your computer—is also a benefit of only using online resources. In the classroom, professors can always utilize and reference the text, trusting that their students are able to follow along on their laptops. For students themselves, they can take advantage of their time to do work on the go and not have to carry along heavy textbooks all the time.
“Since everything is now moving to be digital, it’s easier to have everything in one place,” said junior communications and digital studies major Mary Marcell. “It just makes it easier carrying everything and taking materials to and from class.”
As we enter into a new digital age where more and more information can be accessed virtually, textbooks have become an unnecessary expense for students. Purchasing textbooks for a course is a needless requirement for students in an age where more relevant and substantial information can be accessed online through databases and case studies.
Norah Walsh and Abby Knowles contributed to reporting for this article.