The student news site of the University of Northern Iowa

Northern Iowan

The student news site of the University of Northern Iowa

Northern Iowan

The student news site of the University of Northern Iowa

Northern Iowan

Textbooks without breaking the bank

As the spring semester begins, UNI faculty continue to make an effort to make course materials affordable. In the past two years, the number of professors selecting free materials for their courses doubled.

As the new semester begins, some UNI students may have to choose between paying for necessary items like groceries, or required textbooks for classes. 

UNI’s Textbook Equity Librarian Anne Marie Gruber said this is a reality many students face. 

“If that’s your experience as a student, you are absolutely not alone,” Gruber said.

The cost of textbooks, college tuition and housing have soared in recent years, and students are struggling to keep up. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, textbook prices have increased at a rate nearly three times faster than inflation over the past thirty years. The College Board estimates students at 4-year public universities like UNI spend more than $1,300 per year on textbooks.

I would also say to students, be bold and speak up, because when faculty hear from students, this book is too expensive, that can maybe encourage instructors to look into more affordable resources.

— Anne Marie Gruber, Textbook Equity Librarian


A survey taken last semester of around 1,800 UNI students found 22% work extra hours to pay for textbooks, 17% have earned a poor or failing grade due to textbook costs, and 27% avoid the purchase or rental of required texts. Gruber says these numbers look a little better than data taken two years ago, but there is still room for improvement.

Northern Iowa Student Government (NISG) senator Anna Singelstad is a member of the Textbook Equity Student Advisory Board which engages students in textbook equity advocacy. She said textbooks costs can be detrimental to a student’s educational experience.

“(Textbook equity) impacts you and it impacts the people around you,” Singelstad said. “It affects all of us. Even if you’re not struggling to get textbooks, I guarantee you, there’s probably someone in your life who has.”

The textbook equity initiative at UNI is seeking to reduce some of those textbook associated costs for students, while ensuring all students have access to course materials that are affordable, inclusive and accessible. 

Since tracking began in 2016, the initiative has saved UNI students more than $1.5 million. Much of that money has been saved due to faculty-driven efforts to transition their courses to Open Educational Resources (OER).

The initiative has partnered with professors to help them find alternative low-cost or free materials for their classes. Some professors have even opted to create their own material for students to use free of charge.

“The number of instructors who have selected free materials in their course last year compared to the prior year about doubled, which was incredible,” Gruber said. “So about 80 sections of our classes across campus have reported using free materials.”

Gruber said 16 UNI professors spent their winter break and spring semester learning about options for free and affordable course materials while considering how textbook equity could be integrated into their courses. 

Having affordable course materials available has proven to be incredibly beneficial for students. Students are more likely to stay in courses with free materials, feel an increased sense of belonging and may feel an improved sense of mental well being because stress caused by textbook costs is eliminated.

Beyond UNI’s campus, in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Department of Education is also discussing the topic of textbook equity. They are currently considering a proposal which may require automatic textbook billing programs to be opt-in for all students. Gruber said UNI has some courses which will bill students automatically for course materials, but there is an option to opt-out of these charges.

The proposal from the Department of Education could mean students would have to consent to being charged before they are billed. There are still lots of steps the department must go through in order to accept the automatic billing proposal, while hearing input from the general public. 

Some universities, like Iowa State, have already opted for an automatic textbook billing system, but Gruber said UNI is not currently moving in that direction and any discussions would require ample faculty and student input.

While the cost of textbooks can be a financial and mental burden for many students, Textbook Equity Student Advisory Board member Nkasa Bolumbu said there are many resources for students to utilize.

  “I don’t think a lot of students know that we have resources to be able to make it easier for us to learn the things we need to without hurting the bank too much,” Bolumbu said. “Go to the library, and ask them if they possibly have any of your textbooks you need. Go on the UNI Facebook book exchange, which is a very great resource and sell your own stuff.”

Gruber also encourages students to advocate for accessible course materials by sparking conversations with professors.

“I would also say to students, be bold and speak up, because when faculty hear from students, this book is too expensive, that can maybe encourage instructors to look into more affordable resources.” Gruber said. “The Textbook Equity initiative provides support for instructors to assist them if they are interested in exploring options.”

She continued,  “Reach out if you need help finding alternative options or backup options. Don’t just stay quiet and not do well.”


Leave a Comment
More to Discover
About the Contributor

Comments (0)

All Northern Iowan Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *