Students not ready to part with print

Paper textbooks still provide a more functional study experience 
than digital.

From the amount of time students spend on their cell phones and other tech gadgets, you might never guess they’d rather study from a traditional print textbook than a digital one.

The findings of the spring 2014 Student Watch survey echoed the results of the fall 2013 survey and earlier surveys: If they have to choose between paper or electronic, students prefer print for their course materials. The spring 2014 survey of 11,269 students on 19 campuses was conducted by OnCampus Research, the research arm of indiCo LLC, a division of the National Association of College Stores (NACS). Student Watch’s semiannual campus surveys are funded by the NACS Foundation.

The reason behind the penchant for print is one that should gladden the hearts of faculty. Students genuinely want to make good use of their assigned materials and say they can study more effectively from the printed page. While swiping a screen and thumbing a keyboard enables students to communicate quickly and easily with each other, that doesn’t work so well when it comes to absorbing and retaining knowledge for a class.
Students flip back and forth within a book while they’re studying. They like to scribble notes in the white space, underline keywords, turn down the corners of pages, use different colors of highlighting, or flag pages with stickies. You can do similar things with a digital textbook, too, but it’s a lot more cumbersome and students don’t want to mess around with it if they don’t have to.

Some Student Watch respondents also took issue with the fleeting accessibility of electronic course materials. Since most digital text “purchases” are actually rentals or licenses that typically expire at the end of the term, students have nothing to keep for their personal library.

Students Still Dig Digital

That doesn’t mean students are averse to using digital course materials. For the fall 2013 term, 20.5 percent of Student Watch respondents said they had purchased at least one digital textbook and 54 percent indicated they bought a print/digital bundle — a paper textbook that includes online access to a digital version of the book and/or additional study resources or homework assignments.

In fact, if given their druthers, 42 percent of students admitted they would choose a print/digital package over going solo with just print or electronic materials. With a dual bundle, they can study from the print book in their room but log into the e-version in the classroom, at the library or study hall, or from a sunny spot on the quad. Since 91 percent of students own laptops, 77 percent have smartphones, and 29 percent possess tablets (according to Student Watch research), accessing online materials through the campus-wide Wi-Fi is a breeze.

students-not-ready-for-print1However, there are other factors that influence whether a student reaches for the print textbook versus downloading the digital. Pricing is one. It should come as no surprise that students are quite cost-conscious about their course materials. Faced with the option of buying or renting a print textbook versus an electronic version, many students will go with the e-text if it is substantially cheaper, even if they’d rather use the print book. Students over 25 are especially likely to pick an e-book to save money.

If the digital textbook is just a bit cheaper, though, students are more apt to buy the print book, partly because of their study preferences but also because they perceive an opportunity to sell the paper textbook at the end of the term for greater net savings. Digital course materials can’t be resold.

Faculty Play Important Role

The instructor’s course requirements also skew students’ normal purchasing behaviors. If a faculty member assigns readings or other homework that can only be accessed online through a login code, then students don’t have much choice but to pay for it. Some 81 percent of Student Watch respondents said they bought an access code solely because their instructor required it on the syllabus.

Timing is another factor. Some students hold off on buying class materials for weeks and suddenly realize halfway through the term that they’d better get their hands on the text immediately. At that point, the campus bookstore is often out of print copies, online sellers can’t guarantee prompt delivery (despite their marketing claims), the campus library has already loaned out its single copy, and classmates may be reluctant to share their books. Acquiring the digital text becomes a desperate student’s last-ditch solution.

Trying To Get By

The timing issue should be of some concern to colleges and universities, particularly as more national attention is focused on higher education affordability, student learning outcomes, graduation rates, and post-graduation employment rates.

Student Watch research shows that 31 percent of students deliberately didn’t purchase or rent at least one of their required course materials for the spring 2014 term; on average these students elected not to get three of their required books. Four percent of them didn’t acquire any required course materials at all. First-year students tend to make sure they have all the needed course materials at the beginning of the term, while seniors have a greater tendency to delay obtaining textbooks or do without them altogether.

For 30.2 percent of the students who opted out of a textbook in the fall term, the price — or the student’s lack of funds to pay it — was the main reason for skipping the book. In many instances, students decided they could make it through the entire course without cracking the textbook, a potentially risky gamble for their education.
Some 29.7 percent of students who ultimately went without a textbook said the instructor told them in class that a textbook listed as required reading wasn’t really required for the course after all. In some cases, the instructor advised students who had already purchased or rented copies to return them.

Understandably, students get upset about this, particularly if they aren’t able to get all their money back because they had already marked the book or rental refunds were pro-rated. Often, students tend to direct their anger at the campus bookstore, believing the store deliberately misled them about the requirement in order to sell more books.

A Ripple Effect

That sort of rift in the relationship between the campus store and their student customers can end up costing the institution later on. These days, students can turn to many sources to acquire their course materials; they feel no obligation to shop at the campus store just because it’s there. But when students decide to buy their textbooks and other school supplies elsewhere, that reduces the revenue flow into the school to support faculty salaries, general operations, scholarships, student organizations, or whatever the campus store’s net proceeds are earmarked to support.

For the fall 2013 term, 42.8 percent of Student Watch respondents said they had purchased at least one textbook through and 22.7 percent had rented at least one book through the site. And Amazon is just one of the competitors drawing away students’ business.

Full reports on both surveys, Student Watch: Attitudes and Behaviors toward Course Materials, Fall 2013, and Student Watch: Attitudes and Behaviors toward Course Materials, Spring 2014, are available for purchase from NACS at If you would like your campus to be considered as one of the sites for an upcoming Student Watch survey, contact Elizabeth Riddle, director of OnCampus Research, at Participating schools receive complimentary copies of the report.

Melanie Sparks
Melanie Sparks, CCR is interim executive director of Institutional Support Services for the University of New Mexico where she oversees bookstores, golf courses, housing, food services, ticketing, and the performing arts center. Sparks has served in many capacities for the National Association of College Stores (NACS), including her leadership role as the president of the NACS board of trustees (2008-2009) and currently as president-elect of the NACS Foundation. She has also served as president of both the Rocky Mountain Skyline Bookstore Association and the New Mexico College Bookstore Association.

Vicki Morris Benion, CASP
Vicki Morris Benion, CASP, has held the position of executive director of the NACS Foundation since December 2011. Prior to that time, Benion spent more than 30 years at the Bucknell University Bookstore where she was director from 2000-2011. A past president of the Middle Atlantic College Stores (MACS) and the National Association of College Stores (NACS), she is also a member of the NACAS Certification Council and served as a subject matter expert for the CASP certification.

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