Students' Financial Needs

In brief: High textbook costs are a significant part of students' financial hardship.

High cost of college

The costs of college tuition and textbooks have increased dramatically over the last two decades, far surpassing the average rate of inflation.

Although college textbook costs began to drop in 2017, we don't know yet whether this signals a plateau or whether costs will continute to decrease.

Students' financial hardship

According to a 2020 report from the Hope Center for College, Community, & Justice that summarizes responses from almost 200,000 students, 58% of the students surveyed experienced some sort of basic needs insecurity (i.e. food insecurity, housing insecurity, and/or homelesness).

Not surprisingly, the pandemic has contributed to students' financial hardship. The aforementioned survey found that:

More than one-third of students who were employed before the pandemic reported losing a job since the pandemic's onset...Losing full-time work was less common than losing-part time work. Additionally, approximately one in four students reported working fewer hours or making less money at both part- and full-time jobs.

Infographic explaining students' basic needs insecurities with data from 2020 survey
Image source: The Hope Center for College, Community, & Justice; #RealCollege 2021: Basic Needs Insecurity During the Ongoing Pandemic

Oswego students in particular

A large percentage (41% average, from 2014-2020) of our students are Pell eligible, meaning they come from families with incomes up to $50,000. This is larger than the national average, which is about 35% on average over the same time period.

Effects on students from underrepresented groups

Unfortunately, we also know that college students from underrepresented groups are disproportionately affected by economic hardship, and that the divide has only worsened since the pandemic. Here are a few noteworthy findings from a a 2021 report on the impacts of the pandemic on students in the U.S.:

  • "COVID-19 has raised new barriers for many postsecondary students, with heightened impacts emerging for students of color, students with disabilities, and students who are caregivers, both for entry into higher education and for continuing and completing their studies" (p. iv).

  • Many institutions of higher education that disproportionately serve students of color and students from low-income backgrounds have seen declines in enrollment since the pandemic began. During the 2020-21 academic year historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) also had declines in enrollment that in some cases far outpaced enrollment declines in their predominantly white peer institutions" (pp. iv-v).

  • "Students with disabilities in higher education are facing significant hardships and other barriers due to COVID-19, threatening their access to education, including through remote learning, and basic necessities" (p. v).

How textbook costs contribute to basic needs insecurity

According to a 2019 survey of 4000 college students by U.S. PIRG...

  • 23 of students skip buying at least one textbook.

  • About 15 students skip buying access codes necessary to complete assignments.

  • Almost every respondent worried forgoing these materials would impact their grade.

  • The cost of course materials has a broad impact on the lives of students.

    • 25% reported needing to work extra hours to afford course materials.

    • 22% prioritized purchasing access codes over other course materials.

    • 19% made decisions on which classes to take because of materials cost.

    • 11% reported skipping meals due to materials costs.


Based on their study of an introductory psychology course, Nussbaum, Cuttler, and Swindell (2020) note that their "findings suggest that textbook costs disproportionately affect our most vulnerable students [emphasis added] and the use of OER may be one solution to this problem, particularly given the equivalent performance across textbook groups."

Student Achievement

In addition to the cost savings to students, there has been preliminary research that suggests open educational resources can contribute to student success. 

  • Research summarized by Hilton (2019) suggests that students generally experience equivalent or better learning outcomes when using OER, as compared to outcomes when using traditional textbooks.

  • Colvard, Watson, and Park (2018) found that "OER improve end-of-course grades and decrease DFW (D, F, and Withdrawal letter grades) rates for all students. They also improve course grades at greater rates and decrease DFW rates at greater rates for Pell recipient students, part-time students, and populations historically underserved by higher education [emphasis added]" (p. 262).

    • This research was complemented by the research of Delgado, Delgado, and Hilton (2019) who found that OER have "a significant positive impact on both international students and Pell grant eligible students" (abstract). 

  • Clinton & Khan (2019) conducted a meta-analysis and found course withdrawal rates were significantly lower in courses that used open educational resources.