The New Face of the Textbook Monopoly

The New Face of the Textbook Monopoly
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Today, the Student PIRGs released a new report titled Access Denied that investigates the concerning growth of online access codes in college classrooms.

Here at PIRG, we have long researched the issue of high textbook prices, but today's report calls attention to a new product that is taking the industry by storm - one that is arguably worse for students than high-priced textbooks: access codes.

First, let's put it plain and simple: online access codes are the new face of the textbook monopoly. In one swoop, the publishers remove a student's ability to opt-out of buying their product, eliminate any and all competition in the market, and look good doing it because the codes are cheaper than publisher's exorbitantly priced textbooks.

Access codes are serial numbers that allow students to unlock online learning software. These platforms often contain digital books, homework assignments, quizzes, tests, and more. The access code, once registered, becomes null and may not be used by a different student in a different course or semester.

Given the rapid expansion of this new product in the marketplace, Access Denied contains two pieces: research into the role of access codes in the marketplace, and analysis of the transition from a consumer perspective.

Here's a few of the key findings:

  • Across institutions and majors, an average of 32% of courses included access codes among the required course materials.

  • At campus bookstores, the average cost of an access code alone was100.24.
  • In bookstores, only 28% of access codes were offered in unbundled form. Even when acquired directly from the publisher, only 56% of all required access codes were offered without additional materials bundled in, despite federal law requiring materials to be sold separately.
  • The lack of consumer choice and competition in the textbook market has allowed publishers to drive up prices to unsustainable levels. However, increased prices have allowed alternative pathways to emerge that help students succeed regardless. It is this freedom of choice - the ability of a student to choose between used books, renting, sharing with a friend, borrowing from the library, or opting out entirely - that protects students from the most harmful effects of a broken market.

    The access code model, in contrast, precludes the development of these alternatives and eliminates student choice.

    • By making access codes single-use and individualized for each student, publishers eliminate a student's ability to share with a friend, or borrow from the library if they don't have the financial means to buy it.

  • By creating access codes that include assignments and tests, publishers lock 100% of students in a course into buying their product and eliminate a student's ability to opt-out.
  • By transitioning to digital course materials, publishers now have the ability to eliminate excess supply that could lead to used book markets.
  • Publishers are touting these access codes as a student-friendly option in the textbook market, but in reality, it's just another tactic to eliminate competition in the market and keep profits high. These codes offer big publishers a host of benefits over the traditional print market - while throwing students, especially those who are economically disadvantaged, under the bus.

    A copy of Access Denied is available on the Student PIRGs website at

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