Access Denied: The New Face of the Textbook Monopoly

by NJPIRG Student Chapters | 09/21/2016

Amid rising college costs, college textbooks are often overlooked. New data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that textbook prices have increased by 88% in the past decade, compared to a 63% increase in college tuition and fees. For students and families already struggling to afford college tuition, hundreds of dollars for course materials often comes out-of-pocket and can be a serious barrier to student success.

These high prices are not without consequence. In prior reports, the Student PIRGs found that two-thirds of students skipped buying a textbook because of cost. Nearly 50% of students reported that textbook prices impact which and how many courses they were able to take. Another 33% of students reported using financial aid to purchase their textbooks.

The growth of cost-saving alternatives like used textbooks and free, openly-licensed educational resources have forced publishers to reassess their business and shift toward a new model: access codes.

In brief, access codes are serial numbers that allow students to unlock an online learning suite. These platforms often contain digital books, pre-made homework assignments, quizzes, tests, educational videos, and other multimedia content. The access code, once registered, becomes null and may not be used by any student in a different course or semester.

Given the rapid expansion of this new product in the marketplace, this report contains two pieces: a survey of critical consumer-oriented information on the potential impact of access codes, and an analysis of the transition from the student perspective.

Key Research Findings:

  • Across institutions and majors, an average of 32% of courses included access codes among the required course materials.
  • At campus bookstores, the average cost of an access code alone was $100.24.
  • In bookstores, only 28% of access codes were offered in unbundled form. Even when acquired directly from the publisher, only 56% of all required access codes were offered without additional materials bundled in, despite federal law requiring materials to be sold separately.

Consumer Analysis:

The lack of consumer choice and competition in the textbook market has allowed publishers to drive up prices to unsustainable levels. However, increased prices have allowed alternative pathways to emerge that help students succeed regardless. It is this freedom of choice – the ability of a student to choose between used books, renting, sharing with a friend, borrowing from the library, or opting out entirely – that protects students from the most harmful effects of a broken market.

  • The access code model, in contrast, precludes the development of these alternatives and eliminates student choice.
  • By making access codes single-use and individualized for each student, publishers eliminate a student’s ability to share with a friend, or borrow from the library if they don’t have the financial means to buy it. By creating access codes that include assignments and tests, publishers lock 100% of students in a course into buying their product and eliminate a student’s ability to opt-out.
  • By transitioning to digital course materials, publishers now have the ability to eliminate excess supply that could lead to used book markets.


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