With the fall semester upon us, students are already asking themselves which textbook option will best serve their learning needs and their wallets: is it print, digital, or open?

Because when it comes to shopping for course materials, students hold conflicting views about whether digital or print will give them more bang for their buck. That’s according to a fall 2013 study by the National Association of College Stores (NACS), which surveyed 20,000 students on 20 college campuses about their textbook-buying habits.

On the 20 Million Minds blog, Phil Hill sums up the most surprising findings from the NACS report: A majority of students reported that, in the long run, their most affordable option was “to buy the print textbook and then resell it at the end of the term.” Yet about 20 percent of students surveyed had rented or purchased a digital textbook because they thought digital was less expensive than print.

Edtech watcher Dean Florez has been calling out textbook publishers for their print offerings that can cost students more than $1,000 each semester. The industry’s digital options also have left Florez pretty unimpressed; Amazon.com’s Textbook Store, he writes, is charging for print versions of free, open-access texts and not providing much of a discount on the Kindle versions of popular texts, even the used copies.

As we’ve noted elsewhere on our blog, the affordability (or not) of course materials plays a huge role in whether a student will actually purchase the recommended or required textbooks, digital or print. Phil Hill notes the following patterns in the NACS survey (emphasis ours):

  • Price is the top factor in decision whether to acquire course materials
  • Price is the top factor in decision where to acquire course materials
  • Price is the top factor in decision on which format to choose for course materials
  • Students are becoming savvy shoppers, checking multiple purchasing channels for materials

Thanks to legislation that passed in 2012, college students in California now have access to very affordable textbooks via the California Open Online Library for Education (COOL4Ed). The state agreed to fund 50 open-source digital textbooks, targeted to lower-division courses in subjects including math, business, and art history. Students can download these books for free or pay $20 for hard copies.

Moreover, all of these new open textbooks are required to carry a Creative Commons license—which allows faculty at universities in other states to use these textbooks with their own students. The COOL4Ed collection also features free and open-access journals and open course materials (case studies, quizzes, and more).

The California Open Educational Resources Council, comprised of representatives from the state’s three college systems (community colleges, the Cal State University, and the UC), has already established the next round of peer-review panels for open textbooks, with more to come this fall.