Postscript on Student Textbook Expenditures: More details on data sources

There has been a fair amount of discussion around my post two days ago about what US postsecondary students actually pay for textbooks.

The shortest answer is that US college students spend an average of $600 per year on textbooks despite rising retail prices.

I would not use College Board as a source on this subject, as they do not collect their own data on textbook pricing or expenditures, and they only use budget estimates.

<wonk> I argued that the two best sources for rising average textbook price are the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Association of College Stores (NACS), and when you look at what students actually pay (including rental, non-consumption, etc) the best sources are NACS and Student Monitor. In this post I’ll share more information on the data sources and their methodologies. The purpose is to help people understand what these sources tell us and what they don’t tell us.

College Board and NPSAS

My going-in- argument was that the College Board is not a credible source on what students actually pay:

The College Board is working to help people estimate the total cost of attendance; they are not providing actual source data on textbook costs, nor do they even claim to do so. Reporters and advocates just fail to read the footnotes.

Both the College Board and National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS, official data for the National Center for Education Statistics, or NCES) currently use cost of attendance data created by financial aid offices of each institution, using the category “Books and Supplies”. There is no precise guidance from DOE on the definition of this category, and financial aid offices use very idiosyncratic methods for this budget estimate. Some schools like to maximize the amount of financial aid available to students, so there is motivation to keep this category artificially high.

The difference is three-fold:

  • NPSAS uses official census reporting from schools while the College Board gathers data from a subset of institution – their member institutions;
  • NPSAS reports the combined data “Average net price” and not the sub-category “Books and Supplies”; and
  • College Board data targeted at freshman full-time student.

From NCES report just released today based on 2012 data (footnote to figure 1):

The budget includes room and board, books and supplies, transportation, and personal expenses. This value is used as students’ budgets for the purposes of awarding federal financial aid. In calculating the net price, all grant aid is subtracted from the total price of attendance.

And the databook definition used, page 130:

The estimated cost of books and supplies for classes at NPSAS institution during the 2011–12 academic year. This variable is not comparable to the student-reported cost of books and supplies (CSTBKS) in NPSAS:08.

What’s that? It turns out that in 2008 NCES actually used a student survey – asking them what they spent rather than asking financial aid offices for net price budget calculation. NCES fully acknowledges that the current financial aid method “is not comparable” to student survey data.

As an example of how this data is calculated, see this guidance letter from the state of California [emphasis added].

The California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) has adopted student expense budgets, Attachment A, for use by the Commission for 2015-16 Cal Grant programs. The budget allowances are based on statewide averages from the 2006-07 Student Expenses and Resources Survey (SEARS) data and adjusted to 2015-16 with the forecasted changes in the California Consumer Price Index (CPI) produced by the Department of Finance.

The College Board asks essentially the same question from the same sources. I’ll repeat again – The College Board is not claiming to be an actual data source for what students actually spend on textbooks.


NACS has two sources of data – both bookstore financial reporting from member institutions and from a Student Watch survey report put out in the Fall and Spring of each academic year. NACS started collecting student expenditure data in 2007, initially every two years, then every year, then twice a year.

NACS sends their survey through approximately 20 – 25 member institutions to distribute to the full student population for that institution or a representative sample. For the Fall 2013 report:

Student WatchTM is conducted online twice a year, in the fall and spring terms. It is designed to proportionately match the most recent figures of U.S. higher education published in The Chronicle of Higher Education: 2013/2014 Almanac. Twenty campuses were selected to participate based on the following factors: public vs. private schools, two-year vs. four-year degree programs, and small, medium, and large enrollment levels.

Participating campuses included:

  • Fourteen four-year institutions and six two-year schools; and
  • Eighteen U.S. states were represented.

Campus bookstores distributed the survey to their students via email. Each campus survey fielded for a two week period in October 2013. A total of 12,195 valid responses were collected. To further strengthen the accuracy and representativeness of the responses collected, the data was weighted based on gender using student enrollment figures published in The Chronicle of Higher Education: 2013/2014 Almanac. The margin of error for this study is +/- 0.89% at the 95% confidence interval.

I interviewed Rich Hershman and Liz Riddle, who shared the specific definitions they use.

Required Course Materials:Professor requires this material for the class and has made this known through the syllabus, the bookstore, learning management system, and/or verbal instructions. These are materials you purchase/rent/borrow and may include textbooks (including print and/or digital versions), access codes, course packs, or other customized materials. Does not include optional or recommended materials.

The survey goes to students who report what they actually spent. This includes the categories of sharing materials, choosing not to acquire, rental, purchase new and purchase used.

The data is aggregated across full-time and part-time students, undergraduates and graduates. So the best way to read the data I shared previously ($638 per year) is as per-capita spending. The report breaks down further by institution type (2-yr public, etc) and type (purchase new, rental, etc). The Fall 2014 data is being released next week, and I’ll share more breakdowns with this data.

In future years NACS plans to expand the survey to go through approximately 100 institutions.

Student Monitor

Student Monitor describes their survey as follows:

  • Conducted each Spring and Fall semester
  • On campus, one-on-one intercepts conducted by professional interviewers during the three week period March 24th to April 14th, 2014 [Spring 2014 data] and October 13th-27th [Fall 2014 data]
  • 1,200 Four Year full-time undergrads (Representative sample, 100 campuses stratified by Enrollment, Type, Location, Census Region/Division)
  • Margin of error +/- 2.4%

In other words, this is an intercept survey conducted with live interviews on campus, targeting full-time undergraduates. This includes the categories of sharing materials, choosing not to acquire, rental, purchase new and purchase used.

In comparison to NACS, Student Monitor tracks more schools (100 vs. 20) but fewer students (1,200 vs. 12,000).

Despite the differences in methodology, Student Monitor and NACS report spending that is fairly consistent (both on the order of $600 per year per student).

New Data in Canada

Alex Usher from Higher Education Strategy Associates shared a blog post in response to my post that is quite interesting.

This data is a little old (2012), but it’s interesting, so my colleague Jacqueline Lambert and I thought we’d share it with you. Back then, when HESA was running a student panel, we asked about 1350 university students across Canada about how much they spent on textbooks, coursepacks, and supplies for their fall semester. [snip]

Nearly 85% of students reported spending on textbooks. What Figure 1 shows is a situation where the median amount spent is just below $300, and the mean is near $330. In addition to spending on textbooks, another 40% or so bought a coursepack (median expenditure $50), and another 25% reported buying other supplies of some description (median expenditure: also $50). Throw that altogether and you’re looking at average spending of around $385 for a single semester.

Subtracting out the “other supplies” that do not fit in NACS / Student Monitor definitions, and acknowledging that fall spending is typically higher than spring due to full-year courses, this data is also in the same ballpark of $600 per year (slightly higher in this case).

Upcoming NPSAS Data

The Higher Education Act of 2008 required NCES to add student expenditures on course materials to the NPSAS database, but this has not been added yet. According to Rich Hershman from NACS, NCES is using a survey question that is quite similar to NACS and field testing this spring. The biggest difference will be that NPSAS is annual data whereas NACS and Student Monitor send out their survey in fall and spring (then combining data).

Sometime in 2016 we should have better federal data on actual student expenditures.


Update: Mistakenly published without reference to California financial aid guidance. Now fixed.

Update 3/30: I mistakenly referred to the IPEDS database for NCES when this data is part of National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS). All references to IPEDS have been corrected to NPSAS. I apologize for confusion.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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