What if students didn’t have to be weighed down by college textbooks anymore?

Traditional textbooks are a burden to carry all over the campus. And they are a financial burden as well, with the average textbook cost continually creeping up over the years.

The natural solution for this problem is the digital textbook. With this, students can download the text they need for a fraction of the original cost. And they can access the text through any digital device–no need to carry around a backpack full of books.

How popular, though, are digital textbooks throughout the country? Keep reading to discover the statistics behind digital textbook adoption in US colleges.


Before we dive into research about digital textbook adoption, it’s important to answer a simple question: why are digital textbooks so important to college classes?

It all comes down to rising textbook costs and how this impacts student behavior and learning. A University of Central Florida study found that that 30% of students had, at some point or another, refused to buy a textbook.

The study also discovered 41% of students had delayed buying a textbook and 15% of students have either avoided a class or taken fewer classes than they had planned. The motivation for all of this? The high cost of textbooks.

For publishers, this is a nightmare because their sales are dropping. And for college professors and administrators, these high costs have impacted student completion rates and overall enrollment.

Rising Costs

It’s easy to talk about the high costs of traditional textbooks. But what does this look like as a tangible number?

According to research by the College Board, the average student spends a staggering $1200 per year on textbooks and other materials for classes. Throw in the rising cost of student housing and the difficulty of finding a job and college is downright unaffordable for many students.

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The high cost of traditional textbooks and materials is what made digital textbooks inevitable. College classes will always require some form of unified text, but offering digital copies is a way to cut the costs typically associated with publishing, storing, and shipping a large textbook.

However, digital textbooks could never be a real hit with students until publishers discovered the perfect price point.

The “Sweet Spot” Of Digital Pricing

Setting the price of digital goods is always tricky. No matter how high-quality the product, many consumers will always see the digital version of something as the lesser version. Therefore, the digital price for a textbook must be appropriately lower than the physical text.

There is such a thing as “too low,” though. At a certain point, publishers start to lose money by setting prices too low. Eventually, they would be unable to recruit solid textbook contributors when the chance of profit significantly drops.

Fortunately, many publishers found a digital “sweet spot:” around $40. In fact, that is the average price for digital textbook subscriptions provided by textbook giant Pearson.

At this price, publishers can still make decent money from textbook sales. Things are much more affordable for the students this way as well. At that price, a student could take 10 classes (a standard academic year) and pay only $400 for their textbooks.

Rising Popularity of Electronic Textbooks

Whether it’s because of that “sweet spot” pricing or increasing familiarity with technology, the popularity of electronic textbooks has increased tremendously in the last few years.

An Educause Review study found that 42% of students had used an electronic text at least once in 2012. That increased to 60% in 2014 and 66% by 2016.

It seems like professors are increasingly on board with digital textbooks as well. The same study found that in 2016, 55% of students had at least one course requiring the purchase of an electronic text. This is an important cultural shift signifying that teachers are comfortable relying on electronic texts.

The Problem of Unread Books

While the usage of digital texts has increasingly risen in recent years, there are still a few factors that may hold it back. And one of these is the “unread books” factor.

Basically, a certain percentage of students are unlikely to buy textbooks regardless of the cost. While this percentage has not been quantified by research, many professors share anecdotal stories about students who do not buy the text.

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And even among students who buy the textbook, engagement can be relatively low. Unless a professor bothers with constant quizzes and assessments to reinforce reading, students may not pick up their textbook (digital or otherwise) that often.

To maximize the use of electronic textbooks for college, professors and colleges may need to make conscious adjustments to the expectations and culture surrounding textbook usage.

Other Digital Factors

A few other factors may impact digital textbook adoption. The first is simple: some students simply prefer physical textbooks. On top of that, some studies indicate that students learn better from physical textbooks, so certain students may cling to physical versions.

Other students may not be able to easily read an electronic text. If someone does not have access to a tablet or a laptop, they may not be able to easily read textbook chapters on a smartphone screen.

Finally, some students may be worried about the limitations of electronic devices. If someone forgets to charge their device and then heads to campus, they will not be able to read the textbook all day.

The Best of Both Worlds

Fortunately for students and professors alike, this isn’t a binary choice. The vast majority of electronic textbooks are also offered as physical texts.

That means students who prefer the physical version and don’t mind paying extra can do so. Meanwhile, those who want the price and convenience of a digital textbook can do so.

When we make educational textbooks more accessible, the simple truth is that everyone wins.

Digital Textbook Adoption: The Future Is Here

Now you know the statistics behind digital textbook adoption. But do you know how to stay on top of all things tech?

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