Student spend on course materials rose in 2020-21

With COVID-19 affecting rentals and exchanges, shifts to digital purchases and usage have spiked, while free materials continue to help those struggling financially.
By: | June 17, 2021
Visual Generation/Adobe

College and university students spent more on class materials during 2020-21, invested more in technology and, not surprisingly, spent far more time online taking classes than in past years.

Those are just a few of the takeaways from the newly released Student Watch: Attitudes and Behaviors toward Course Materials: 2021 Report from the National Association of College Stores (NACS), an annual study done in February through March that gathered responses from 11,800 students at 39 two- and four-year institutions. Two-thirds of them said they had never taken an online course prior to last year, but more than 80% were thrust into one in 2020-21.

Students who were polled indicated their fully remote learning outcomes (3.3 out of 5 rating) were not as positive as those from face-to-face instruction (4.2 out of 5).

“Student Watch respondents rated their learning experience higher for in-person classes than they did online-only courses,” said Brittany Conley, research analyst, NACS OnCampus Research.

Despite the surge in online courses and despite taking fewer courses overall—whether hybrid and fully virtual— students managed to spend more on course materials, one of the few times in more than a decade that has happened. NACS and OnCampus researchers noted that a lack of easy access to rental of materials, physical printers and exchanges with other students on campus likely caused those increases.

Publishers of digital materials also raised prices in 2021, so instructors that have or can offer students alternatives to free instruction materials likely would be welcome for students in the future. Free materials saw a big jump in 2020-21, from less than .75 units to more than 1 unit per student.

Cost was a concern for students, who suffered from the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic in many ways, including isolation and financial hardships. According to NACS report, “30% of students seriously considered dropping out or delaying enrollment in the 2020-21 year.” That number spiked to almost 40% for those with dependents. Students cited finances, online course delivery and academic struggles as reasons why they thought of leaving school.

More student trends

The study found that more students took part this past year in inclusive access programs, those that offer digital course materials from the first day of classes as part of tuition. Nearly 60% of students said they increased their utilization of digital materials this year, while only 6% said they decreased their use.

NACS researchers noted in the report that students overwhelmingly said they plan to turn more to digital materials over print in the year ahead. However, that would go against trends that have been fairly consistent the past three years, as 48% still prefer print materials.

When students did have to purchase physical materials this year, they mainly shopped at their institution’s online campus stores (35%) over physical locations (20%). Another 20% got them on Amazon, while just over 10% got materials direct from publishers.

One big investment made by more than 50% of students in a quest to remain digitally relevant and on top of their coursework was the purchase of major devices, from desktop computers to laptops. Prior to the pandemic in a study done by NACS, only about 6% of students planned a significant device purchase. But that changed quickly in the fall of 2020. Those that did buy devices spent a little more than $1,000, compared with just over $300 for those that didn’t. Freshmen spent the most on technology ($950) compared with juniors and seniors (around $560).