What could the shift toward digital textbooks mean for affordability?

Pearson, the largest supplier of textbooks to U.S. students, has announced it is shifting to a digital-first model. While the company said the change will help decrease textbook costs, other higher education experts fear it “might not be good for affordability,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. Instead of updating its print textbooks every three years, Pearson will release new digital editions—each requiring new access codes—potentially sidelining competitors like Chegg and Amazon that currently resell print textbooks at lower prices.

Will digital access curtail textbook costs’ upward trajectory?

Textbook affordability has become a serious barrier for low-income students: costs jumped more than triple the rate of inflation from 1977 to 2015, NBC’s analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data states. In one U.S. Public Interest Research Group study, 65 percent of students surveyed said that cost concerns had forced them to forego purchasing needed textbooks for a college course.

Pearson says that its digital textbooks will cost, on average, $40 per e-book and $70 for a suite of resources and tools. But Kaitlyn Vitez, director of the Make Higher Education Affordable Campaign at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, told The Chronicle that “we have no guarantees that prices are going to stay at that rate.” She says that the pivot to digital could potentially give the large textbook supplier “more opportunities to charge students for access to digital platforms requiring costly access codes.”

Pearson also is looking to partner with colleges on so-called inclusive-access arrangements, in which the cost of accessing textbook publishers’ digital platforms is baked into tuition or student fees, often at below-market prices. Some students, however, are wary of these arrangements—and the overall shift to curtail textbook resale options.

Nicholas Sengstaken, a rising senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been an outspoken critic. “Pearson moving toward all-digital content is just another example of them moving toward policies and products which promote their profit margins rather than the interest of students,” Sengstaken told The Chronicle. “It’s only going to decrease the amount of affordable options.”

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