5 ways you can help students cut textbook costs

Older editions and free online resources can produce hundreds in savings.
By Hannah Pitstick

Sheldon Smith and Kevin Smith, accounting professors at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah, got a surprise in the mail one day. One year before expected, they received a review copy of the next edition of the accounting textbook they were using.

“We had been on a three-year cycle, and all of the sudden it showed up on a two-year cycle,” Sheldon Smith, CPA, Ph.D., said. “So we started wondering: Is there really enough content change in two years to make it worth doing a new edition?”

That revelation led them to investigate the question further. “We started going back through prior editions of the textbook we were using at the time, from the 18th back to the 13th, and there were minor changes,” Kevin Smith, Ph.D., said. “Up to 15 percent of the content was different, but everything else was word for word as it was 12-plus years prior. It surprised me just how little content had changed over a decade's worth of editions.”

The Smiths published the results of their study in a 2014 article in the Journal of Business and Educational Leadership.

In the end, the Smiths decided not to adopt the surprise edition they received in the mail, opting instead to keep the old book for another two years, which allowed students to buy the book used at discounted rates.  

Rising textbook prices can cause students financial hardship. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ consumer price index data, textbook prices have increased 73% between 2006 and 2016. Almost one-third of students, one survey found, have used financial assistance to purchase textbooks.

Though textbook prices are set by publishers, there are some things accounting faculty can do to help decrease students’ textbook costs:

Use older editions or hold off on asking students to buy new editions. Faculty can allow students to use older editions of textbooks, as the Smiths did, even when newer ones are available.

Though this tactic can save students money, it does come with drawbacks: As Theresa Hammond, Ph.D., an accounting professor at San Francisco State University, noted, it takes more effort from the professor's point of view not to order the new textbook because new editions usually come with a fresh test bank and new set of problems. Professors understandably don't want the other students to already have the same materials, so they have to be willing to spend a few more hours a semester writing tests and developing their own handouts.

Hammond and colleague Kenneth Danko, professor emeritus at San Francisco State, published the results of a survey on accounting faculty’s views of textbook revisions in the Journal of Accounting Education in 2015.

Another issue with used textbooks is many books now come bundled with “access codes” that are required to complete course work and are good for only one semester. In many cases, the access code can be bought separately, allowing students to buy a cheaper used book elsewhere, but sometimes this option is not well advertised. Be sure to let students know if there is a possibility of buying access codes separately from the textbook.

Incorporate free online resources. Maureen Flores, Ed.D., a lecturer at Troy University in Troy, Alabama, likes to use free online resources to supplement her courses, including Merlot for accounting drills and Khan Academy for practice exercises and video workouts. She also uses resources from firms, including Deloitte’s Trueblood case studies, and from the AICPA.

“I find if I give [students] all of these links to things they can look at and experience, I'm also allowing the different types of learners in my course to have more of an opportunity to absorb the information,” she said. “I like to make sure they’re aware of these other options out there, especially if they might not be able to buy a textbook.”

Some professors are even attempting to reduce textbook costs to zero by authoring or finding online, open-source textbooks that students can use for free.

For instance, financial accounting and managerial accounting course resources can be found on COOL4Ed (California Open Online Library for Education), complete with electronic textbooks. And there are more than 500 results for “accounting” in the Merlot collection.

Check for textbook funding and grants. Look to see what your school or state offers in terms of funding or grant programs related to textbooks.  Several states, including Florida, Washington, and California, have created state-funded programs to encourage universities to replace traditional textbooks with free and/or low cost textbooks.

Some universities, such as Florida State University, have started their own grant programs to reward faculty who express interest in adopting or partially integrating open textbooks and affordable resources in their classrooms. Washington State University has a similar program, inviting faculty to apply for Affordable Learning Grants to support the exploration and adoption of free digital course material.

Specify which books are actually required. For students who are struggling with textbook costs, it’s helpful when professors are clear about which books are required and which are simply recommended.

In some situations, faculty can give students a choice between a print or an electronic textbook, as Hammond is doing this semester. (Ebooks are often cheaper, but some students prefer hard copies.)

Send book lists early so students can shop around. As the start of the semester draws near, textbook costs tend to increase because supplies dwindle. Sending students the list of required texts as soon as possible allows them to search at bookstores and online for the lowest possible price. Online stores such as Amazon, CampusBooks, VitalSource, and Chegg all sell textbooks, often at lower prices than the campus bookstore.

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

Where to find March’s flipbook issue

The Journal of Accountancy is now completely digital. 





Get Clients Ready for Tax Season

This comprehensive report looks at the changes to the child tax credit, earned income tax credit, and child and dependent care credit caused by the expiration of provisions in the American Rescue Plan Act; the ability e-file more returns in the Form 1040 series; automobile mileage deductions; the alternative minimum tax; gift tax exemptions; strategies for accelerating or postponing income and deductions; and retirement and estate planning.