By Ella Prieto, Assistant News Editor
On Friday, Director of Scholarly Communications Janelle Wertzberger and Scholarly Communications Librarian Mary Elmquist shared the results from the Gettysburg College Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey conducted last fall. The research was titled “Spend, Stress, and Struggle: Gettysburg College Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey 2022.”
Wertzrberger began the presentation by explaining that Musselman Library had previously conducted a textbook affordability survey in the fall of 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, interrupted many of their plans.
The decision to repeat the survey came after they received a call from Bates College Librarian and Gettysburg College Alum Krystie Wilfong ’08. Wilfong wanted to administer a survey similar to the one done at Gettysburg in 2019.
Once finalized, the survey was sent out to nine other colleges in the Oberlin Group of Libraries. The results presented, however, only focused on Gettysburg College.
The research questions centered around how much money students spent on textbooks and other required course materials, what strategies they used to reduce costs and how they were affected by those costs.
16 percent of the student body (or 387 students) answered the survey. 30 percent is needed to ensure that a response group represents the overall body, yet Wertzberger and Elmquist were still able to find interesting patterns.
The first topic discussed was about how much students spent on all fall 2022 courses. Most students answered that they spent between $101 and $200 on books, but the mean price spent on books was $248.10. In comparison with 2019 data, students paid less on average. However, they spent about $10 more than students at the other schools who also conducted the survey.
In a breakdown by class year, first-years spent the most ($305.82), while seniors spent the least ($169.88).
“First-years are most likely to be assigned those big expensive textbooks and access codes, but they’re also the least experienced at navigating the textbook market, and may not yet have learned the strategies used by upper-class students,” Elmquist said.
First-generation students spent about $80 more than their peers. Elmquist highlighted a student response from this section that said, “As a first-gen student it’s very hard to know what you need and what you can get for free. There aren’t people teaching the ins and outs about how to afford books and other resources.”
Next, students answered what they felt was a reasonable amount to pay for books and required course materials in a single class. The mean response was $61.81. There was a noticeable difference between the amount first-generation students were willing to pay ($75.26) and non-first-generation students ($55.11).
“While we can’t really explain this without further research, we can speculate that it might tie back to the issue of how much more first-gen students are spending,” said Elmquist. “If you’re used to spending more, why wouldn’t that affect how much you think you should be spending?”
The survey then questioned students about measures they took to reduce required book costs. This question had 11 different strategies students could choose from, as well as an “Other” option where they could write in an alternative one. Elmquist highlighted that only 3 percent of students said that they did not attempt to reduce the costs of their books and that the majority of students used the college bookstore to reduce costs.
In the “Other” answers, Elmquist saw that most students alluded to pirating sources.
“More than half of all the elaborations on ‘Other’ here suggested, or outright said, that students were pirating their books or other materials,” said Elmquist. “This is way up from 2019, where only about five responses even suggested that students downloaded their books illegally, and no one explicitly mentioned piracy at all.”
The survey also asked students about the impact of the cost of required books. Students could choose from six different categories as well as the “Other” option.
A large number of respondents reported that they struggled academically because of the costs. Some students reported that they changed their majors because of the costs associated with required courses.
When comparing with data from 2019, Elmquist said, “The percentage of respondents who said they didn’t buy required books or struggled academically have risen noticeably since 2019. And the number of students saying they haven’t felt any negative effects from textbook costs has gone down.”
First-generation students also stood out from their peers, with the data showing that they “are significantly more likely than non-first-gen to say they’ve not purchased books, and over three times more likely to say they’ve struggled academically because of cost.”
Further, 70 percent of students said they preferred printed books, but fewer students noted a preference for printed books compared to 2019’s data. 50 percent of students also said they preferred the cheapest option.
Students also answered a question about how they paid for books. The top two answers were with students’ own money (65.9 percent) and their parent’s/family’s money (52.5 percent).
Another question focused on whether students believed their institution or professors paid attention to the cost of course materials and worked to make them more affordable. This question allowed answers on a scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Most students answered that they disagreed that their institution cared and worked for more affordable options, but they agreed that their professors did.
In the free response section, students said they often felt that the bookstore overcharged for materials when compared to other vendors such as Amazon.
Wertzberger then shared some of the students’ suggestions for how to better deal with this issue. These suggestions included professors highlighting required versus optional texts and professors sharing when certain books are used so that students could spread out their purchases.
The event ended with Wertzberger and Elmquist sharing their recommendations and conclusions based on their research. The three main recommendations were transparent communication around costs, reducing book costs when possible and not assuming someone else is solving the problem.
“That’s my call to action,” said Wertzberger. “There is a role that every single person in this room can play in regard to textbook affordability… [you can] organize around this work, or you can manage a budget that can contribute somehow toward long-term solutions, or you can advocate to campus decision-makers that we move this work forward in a big way.”
Wertzberger also welcomed the audience members to consult the results of the survey on The Cupola.