Should College Bookstores Sell Books?

You may have seen the recent post on the Akademos blog summarizing outcomes from our survey of college and university CFOs about textbook trends and bookstore services practices. Many of our findings were not a surprise—such as the idea that students are leaving the college bookstore to shop at third-party retailers because of perceived better pricing. Others were a bit confounding—like the desire to offer students lower-cost textbooks, while simultaneously hesitating to sell textbooks from anywhere but brick-and-mortar college bookstores.

As college administrators search for the right direction regarding bookstore operations, I think lessons from changes in the trade bookstore business are worth considering in this discussion of how college bookstores may evolve. Today’s trade book consumer is fiercely value-conscious, and the brick-and-mortar bookstore business has been revolutionized by the selection, price, and speed of delivery offered by online retailers. Local bookstores that have survived have done so by offering unique services and products not readily available from online sellers.

Are college students any less concerned about value? A recent article published by The Chronicle of Higher Education (“Students Get Savvier About Textbook Buying“) shows that students are also diligent bargain-hunters. We see little evidence that college bookstores are adapting quickly to this challenge of providing superior value to their students. In fact, the trends we see from examining RFPs and college bookstore contracts suggest the opposite.

Bookstore contracts are too frequently awarded to service providers who promise double-digit commissions to schools, or multi-million dollar capital commitments to rebuild student centers or other campus facilities. Yet aren’t students the ones really paying for these high-cost contract commitments? And what of the corresponding business practices resulting from these agreements that conflict with the mission of higher education?

Here are a few consequences that give us concern:

  • Financial aid dollars are tied to use at the college bookstore, so students face the dilemma of using out-of-pocket funds to purchase low-cost textbooks outside the college bookstore, or running up their already high debt burden by overpaying for their course materials in their college bookstore.
  • Custom textbooks that offer little incremental value beyond the standard editions are developed in a coordinated effort between publishers, faculty, and bookstore operators. These books are often priced extremely high, and their exclusive availability in the college bookstores thwarts students from renting or purchasing used editions of these textbooks elsewhere.

We think it’s time to focus on how this cycle impacts student outcomes and drives up the cost of education, particularly with regard to attrition. It is estimated that “as many as one in three [students] frequently opt not to purchase required academic materials due to cost” (National Survey of Student Engagement, 2012). We know that for many community college students, the cost of learning materials can be as much as the cost of tuition. How is this cycle burdening schools with unintended costs from poorly prepared and under-performing students who don’t persist to completion?

It is only a matter of time before colleges must actively consider more efficient ways of meeting their students’ needs through alternative textbook and course material delivery platforms. If it is possible to provide complete availability of course materials, a robust used and rental marketplace, and access to free teaching materials like Open Educational Resources, then why are college administrators not more engaged in exploring alternatives to stocking textbooks in their physical stores?

In the end, we see the conversation about textbook costs as moving into a broader circle, involving the college CFO, provost, and president. College presidents have not been fully engaged in considering how schools meet this critical student need more efficiently. But since they are also under enormous pressure to cut costs and improve educational outcomes, the day when college presidents turn their attention to this key piece of student performance is surely close at hand.

We will soon share a comparable survey of college presidents and provosts to explore how their impressions of the issues raised here compare to those who, understandably, are primarily focused on the financial interests of their schools.

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Why Students are Leaving the College Bookstore (According to College CFOs)

As an education technology company that provides online bookstore services to schools and their students, Akademos has always had anecdotal information from clients and students regarding the changing landscape for textbook services. We sought to validate the concerns that college chief financial officers (CFOs) had expressed to us about the future of their textbook services given the challenges presented by a vast marketplace of external competition, and the requirements of meeting new digital delivery needs presented by growing online curriculum.

Thus, we commissioned the first comprehensive survey of college CFOs regarding the future of bookstore services, with the results published in March 2013 here in a white paper. Here is a snapshot of some key findings:

  • 89% of respondents confirmed that students are increasingly turning away from campus-based bookstores in favor of third-party providers, citing, on average, 28% of students are shopping elsewhere.
  • Respondents pointed to price as the primary reason students bypass the college bookstore (78%), with students’ inclination to purchase online a distant second (12%).
  • Survey respondents indicated that on average, 56% of textbook sales are transacted with financial aid.
  • Respondents ranked giving students access to high-quality, low-cost textbooks as the most important service institutions can provide regarding the sale of textbooks.
  • 88% believe textbook costs impact student retention and persistence.
  • 82% indicated that textbook sales have been flat or down over the past three years.
  • 18% stated they believe textbooks will be sold exclusively in a school online bookstore, while 80% are of the opinion that their school will utilize both an online and brick-and-mortar store.

Overall, textbook delivery and bookstore services are only now becoming a prominent issue for CFOs (the topic doesn’t even come up on previous surveys about CFOs’ general responsibilities). This rise in priority is likely due in part to increasing attention to the costs vs. outcomes of higher education from students and their families, accreditation committees, and the government (e.g., HEOA). The question becomes whether the competitive and technical challenges of serving student-needs in an increasingly online world can be met by the current model, particularly by college bookstores that sell textbooks in a brick-and-mortar environment.

Competition from online, third-party providers is of major concern for the viability of the textbook business at campus bookstores. Students are leaving the school-sanctioned bookstore because of better pricing elsewhere, and this loss of customers is driving schools to more closely examine their textbook affordability, both for business reasons—revenue from textbooks appears to be in decline—and for educational reasons—charging students exorbitant mark-ups on course materials to help fund school initiatives is becoming an increasingly questionable practice in higher education.

Below is a summary of top outcomes and analysis from our survey on textbook delivery and bookstore services.

Textbook costs impact retention and persistence

The impact of college affordability on student outcomes such as retention, persistence and completion is becoming more evident, particularly in those programs where the cost of textbooks could exceed the cost of the course.

The majority of CFOs (89%) indicated textbooks costs do have some impact on retention and persistence. Given students are reporting that they do not buy all of their required books for a course, and graduation rates are tied to accreditation and other funding, textbook costs are joining tuition and fees as a potential cause of attrition.

Students are shopping outside the school-sanctioned bookstore for textbooks—predominantly choosing third-party, online retailers

Whether you are a college CFO, a faculty member, a student or parent, or just a member of the general public, you likely recognize that students are shopping online in order to find lower cost textbook prices.

Most CFOs (89%) confirmed that students are indeed shopping for textbooks outside of the school bookstore. What percentage of students shopping outside the school bookstore is too much? We think that is, and will continue to be, a central question in bookstore services. If you are a CFO reading this, do you know how many student customers are buying their books at your bookstore and how many are leaving?

CFOs in our survey reported that on average, 28% of their students are shopping elsewhere. Yet in the recent National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), between 25% and 33% of students reported not even buying required textbooks. So who is shopping at the school bookstore for their texts (see Financial Aid point below in this post)? In our experience, the portion of students perceived as shopping outside the bookstore is under-reported. The majority of schools are either not tracking this data, or not analyzing this data in an actionable way. Additionally, one-on-one feedback from school administrators across the country in the last year actually points to the contrary—that less than 30% of students are shopping in the school-sanctioned bookstore for textbooks. This discrepancy is surely a challenge to be reconciled by schools and their bookstore providers.

Further, a follow-up focus group indicated an interest in understanding how many of those students are purchasing the majority of their books at the school bookstore.

Cost is the biggest issue chasing students away

It is likely no surprise that respondents pointed to price as the dominant reason (79%) for students shopping elsewhere, with the belief that students are more inclined to purchase online as a distant second (12%). When you put these together, it confirms an overall trend we have heard from administrators and students alike: Students are increasingly buying textbooks on third-party websites because they can find better deals there than at the school bookstore. And, again, it is no surprise that school bookstores are experiencing challenges competing when you consider the costs of running a brick-and-mortar with limited or local inventory vs. an online operation with national inventory.

Access to high-quality, low-cost textbooks is the most important service schools can provide

The “most important service schools can provide students regarding the sale of textbooks,” as ranked by 53.5% of respondents, is to provide “access to high-quality, low-cost textbooks.”

Additionally, in the open-ended answers, textbook affordability was listed as the second most-cited concern about bookstore services (after staying competitive).

Used books are the most important resource to the future of schools’ bookstores

When asked to rank resources such as new, used, digital, rental, and OER (Open Educational Resources) in order of importance to the future of the school’s bookstore, nearly 80% of respondents ranked used books as number one. It is interesting to note that a majority of CFOs rated both supplying used books and supplying rentals as very important, yet revenue from new books is still outpacing that from both of these categories combined.

Financial aid, designed to assist financially-challenged students, is actually leading them to the most expensive options for textbooks

On average, new books make up approximately half of all textbook sales at respondents’ school bookstores. New books are also the students’ most expensive option. If our neediest students buy elsewhere, they are forgoing their aid. But, if they buy at the school bookstore, they are likely spending more than they need to on textbooks. This Catch-22 is contributing to both the rising student debt burden and mounting budgetary pressures on financial aid.

In the face of competition, schools still believe they will be in the business of selling textbooks out of a brick-and-mortar in the coming years

This might be the most surprising outcome of the survey. A majority of CFOs believe that their school will continue to sell books at their brick-and-mortar bookstore. Only 18% of college CFOs believe textbooks will be sold solely online. It is particularly surprising given CFOs recognize that cost is the biggest issue chasing students away, and that financial aid is binding students to shop at stores where costs are less competitive than online alternatives.

How feasible is it for schools to balance textbook pricing for their online bookstore and their brick-and-mortar store, particularly without unnecessarily inflating prices for students?

When the responses were posed to a focus group following the survey, some cited long-term contracts for brick-and-mortar services and the inability to consider alternative options until those contracts expire. The question then becomes, if the bookstore is not competitive in current times, how will long-term contracts affect schools’ ability to keep up with changing trends and technologies five or ten years into the future?

Staying competitive is a top business concern

What are CFOs’ top concerns in their own words? The open-ended answers revealed a consistent set of issues relating to textbook delivery/college bookstores, but staying competitive was the top cited issue.

 

What Can You Do? Best Practices Bookstore Services Audit

If you wish to further examine the issue of textbook affordability at your school, what can you do? We recommend starting with an audit of your bookstore practices, taking into consideration how the economic model is changing as well as how student preparedness affects overall student academic performance. We have put together the Akademos Textbook Affordability Best Practices Audit to assist you with evaluating both the health and the mission of your textbook practices. As always, you can also reach out to us directly to have a conversation about your textbook delivery mission and practices.

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College CFO Survey on Textbooks in Bookstores

 

What do CFOs think about the future of textbooks sold in college bookstores? Our 2013 College CFO Survey on Textbook Delivery and Bookstore Services has been completed and posted to our resources webpage. Check out the summary in our Textbook Delivery infographic below. Or download the full report.

 

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