Three Course Materials Changes College Publishers Should Know About

Three Course Materials Changes College Publishers Should Know About

The word ‘change’ often comes to mind when thinking about the U.S.’ higher education market, and to no other group is that word more relevant than the market’s publishers. Change means scrambling to provide resources that help students graduate in a reasonable amount of time. The paths are many that students follow to get their certificates or degrees, meaning change in the course materials market’s mechanics of sales and distribution. The idea of a ‘traditional’ higher education is changing with declining enrollment rates, students’ preference for technology, and open education resources that threaten the market’s older publishers.

Higher Education Publishers Target Digital Resources

Sitting in a lecture hall and taking notes on seminars paints for many a classic picture of the college experience, but a growing number of students are choosing to leave the confines of campus to carve out their higher education path.  As of 2014-2015, there were 4,207 higher education institutions in the U.S. granting degrees to graduates, which means a startling decline of 2.2% from 4,292 institutions in 2013-2014, according to the recently released higher education market report College Course Materials Market Trends & Forecast 2016 published by Simba Information. Students are also turning to screens instead of print more often, with digital media accounting for 42.2% of course materials by 2015, up from just 31.5% in 2014. And most telling is the data reporting that overall undergraduate enrollment of 17.7 million in 2012 is down to 17.3 million in 2014, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.  For students who don’t like the linear learning style old-fashioned textbooks present, a technology-rich higher education gives them wiggle-room for how they navigate course material.  

That’s not to say print texts’ value to students isn’t there; multiple surveys demonstrate students retaining a preference for print textbooks, which supports the secondary market. However Simba reports that the print media share of course materials was 57.7% in 2015. Market publishers must adopt new technology platforms and digital solutions to respond to textbook sales’ decline, and publishers pushing technology see in tech-savvy students a lucrative niche. It’s unsurprising that expenditure on traditional course materials – long a mainstay for publishers’ revenue – has been dropping for almost a decade. College Course Materials Market Trends & Forecast 2016 reports that annual spending on printed course materials has decreased by nearly 20% between 2007-2008 and 2014-2015. Pearson Education, one of the largest and most popular U.S. publishers in the industry, knows well the depth and breadth of higher education’s digital changes, struggling in the midst of its three-year plan to simplify business after its goal for renewed growth crumbled in 2016. Speaking about expectations for improving returns and stabilizing enrollment, Pearson’s chief financial officer Coram Williams simply said, “Our forecasts were too optimistic.”

Higher Education Slowly Embracing Open Educational Resources

Enrollment rates and a digitalizing classroom are the two newest pieces of the market puzzle publishers need to solve. Now a third, older competitor to commercial course materials is gaining momentum in the form of open educational resources (OERS). Often free or low-cost, OERs took shape as likely competitors to commercial course materials a decade ago in response to rising costs associated with higher education. Advocacy groups see OERS as opportunities to philanthropically support smart alternatives to the ‘traditional’ college education. Such philanthropic success can be best witnessed in OpenStax, widely regarded as the definitive embodiment of open educational resources. Launched out of Rice University in 2012, OpenStax succeeds for many reasons, chief among them the massive support from well-known groups such as The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  Spearheading OERs’ entry into higher education institutions are initiatives like Achieving the Dream, a San Francisco-based national nonprofit community college reform network. These groups offer grant initiatives in open education resources to spur changes in course design and develop new degree programs using OERs. Literally redefining the way students access course materials, OpenStax solicits and pays authors for their work, producing peer-reviewed textbooks and tools available free online and at low cost in print. 

Media share in higher education instructional materials

In light of market publishers’ busy transition to digital business, it’s ironic that the challenges OER presents to the commercial business model exist because of its help in creating textbooks. When asked about the threat OERs pose to the commercial course materials market, Pearson’s CEO John Fallon noted that while OER undeniably contributes to downward-sliding industry sales, its alternativeness may end up hindering its success, saying “What we are seeing as well is a growing number of faculty abandon OER experiments and move back to core courseware.”  According to College Course Materials Market Trends & Forecast 2016, just 6.6% of faculty reported that they were “Very aware” of open educational resources, with around three times that many (19%) saying that they were “Aware”. Still, it’s not easy for publishers to simply sideline OERs. It may not be spreading like wildfire, but publishers still find open educational resources not only on campuses but increasingly in their traditional distribution channels as well. Collectively, enrollment decline and courseware alternatives like OERs and rental books are expected to make up one-third of the likely decline in higher education course revenue in 2016, according to Fallon. While open educational resources are prime industry competitors, it remains to be seen if academia’s capacity and willingness to understand OERs grows.

Adaptive programs in higher education have become crucial than ever to students’ success, making it difficult to retain the one-size-fits-all approach in the realm of higher education. It seems likely that market publishers who rework business strategies around digital resources and shrug off new course materials and printed textbooks as main revenue sources will be most successful at adapting to the many paths students take to degrees.

More information can be found in the report College Course materials Market Trends & Forecast 2016 at