What are students purchasing for their courses?

Student spending on course materials continues to decline as the purchase of technology increases, a survey finds
By: | July 1, 2020
College student spending trends show that college students purchased more technology than their required course materials but college students are buying more digital units than last year.Photo by Anastasiia Ostapovych on Unsplash

Before the pandemic hit, students spent more on technology than what their classes required and many waited to purchase course materials to see if they were necessary, a recent study on college student spending showed.

Meanwhile, both the number of digital materials college students purchased and downloaded for free sharply rose in 2020. This, despite twice as many students saying they preferred print textbooks over digital and even more wanting their textbooks to have a digital component, though it sometimes depended on the class.

More than 14,200 students attending 35 two- and four-year colleges and universities contributed to these findings in this year’s annual report from the National Association of College Stores, a trade association that represents the collegiate retailing industry.

“We anticipate that there will be an uptick in spending for technology as a result of COVID-19 and faculty are saying they might adopt different course materials as a result of the virus,” says Richard Hershman, vice president of government relations. “Schools that used digital course materials had a much easier time transitioning to online education more quickly than systems that predominately used print course materials.”

What college students are buying (and not)

Students spent over $100 more on technology this year than on course materials, which declined slightly from the previous academic year while the average amount spent per course dropped by 6%.

In 2019-20, only 34% of students purchased the majority of their materials before classes started. Nearly 70% of students who hadn’t said they wanted to find out if the materials were necessary first.


Related: Affordable textbook legislation introduced (again): Is it finally time?

Related: Higher ed retail: More in store

Related: Acquiring e-books for college and university libraries


Meanwhile, more than half of students who did not obtain at least one required course material blamed their decision on the cost. Additionally, nearly 50% did not want to or thought the materials weren’t needed, 35% said it was unnecessary and more than a quarter claimed their professor said it wasn’t necessary.

Textbooks or digital?

This year, one in every five materials that college students purchased was digital as opposed to one in seven the year before while the percentage of students downloading free materials online doubled to 26% during the same timeframe.

However, more students prefer traditional textbooks overall in comparison to digital solutions if they had to choose between the two, though a majority (30%) said it depended on the course.

More than a quarter (26%) of students said they preferred print textbooks with a digital component and 22% just wanted print textbooks. Meanwhile, only 11% preferred just using digital textbooks and even fewer (10%) wanted the digital textbook if it came with additional digital components.

“If all things were created equal, students would have both formats available, so while they are working on their screens from home, they can look at their textbook,” says Hershman. “That, or students would need to work off multiple monitors, since what students can see on their apps is usually  tight.”

He adds, “There is so much uncertainty about what the fall is going to look like but financial aid officers should be appropriately factoring in the additional tech costs into fall term planning since it’s more likely that schools will provide more online learning than in-person.”

For more coronavirus coverage, click here


Interested in technology? Keep up with the UB Tech® conference.