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January 29, 2018

Diana Cebreja, a first-year student, and Christian Sanchez, a second-year student, shop for text books at the Bunker Hill Community College bookstore in Boston, MA. January 26, 2018. (Meredith Nierman/WGBH)

College students returning to campus this semester month will shell out a lot of money on textbooks. The College Board estimates students typically spend more than $1,000 each year on their course materials.

Now, a Boston-based publisher wants to make them more affordable by becoming the “Netflix for textbooks.”

This fall, Cengage, America's second-largest textbook publisher, is starting its new subscription service, which will be offered to students at $120 a semester or $180 for the entire year.

"We heard loud and clear that students are saying, 'We like your content, but these prices are insane. I can't afford that,'" said Cengage CEO Michael Hansen.

Five years ago, Cengage declared bankruptcy. Then, last year Hansen said Cengage decided to turn its business model on its head.

"We said, 'Let's look at how people consume media today,'" he said. "And the reality is most people consume media in a shared model, like the Netflix model."

Beginning in August, Cengage will offer students a subscription service, giving them complete access online to all the company's 20,000 textbooks and other materials.

"You can get all that we have and all that you can learn," Hansen said.

That pitch to price-conscious students comes as the $10 billion college textbook industry is struggling.

Since Cengage went bankrupt, the company and its primary competitor Pearson have gone all in on digital, hoping to recover sales.

"There's just more options for students not to use the required text. They're borrowing it. They're bootlegging it," said Howard Lurie, a principal analyst at the higher education research firm, Eduventures.

Lurie said Cengage's move to digital could possibly save students money.

"This is a great way to lower student costs," he said. "That's a great first step. I think there's a lot of potential, given we're moving to more digital platforms for improving the ability of students to pass through their courses."

Whether the move will save students money, though, is out of the company's hands. Professors ultimately decide which materials are required for their courses. They could include texts published by other companies.

Right now, for example, Pearson, offers some digital texts but not a similar subscription service.

Hansen said initial conversations with professors from various universities and colleges about Cengage’s new model have gone well.

For many students buying books for the upcoming semester, the textbook prices are a financial burden.

At Bunker Hill Community College, fourth-year student Alisa Ruiz has just bought her textbooks for the semester at the campus bookstore.

Even though she works full-time in retail, Ruiz said she can't afford all her textbooks because other living expenses eat up so much of her income.

"Even the books that are rented, they're still expensive, so I think the publishers should look at and consider, 'Well, maybe we should lower the prices, or maybe we should make this available online for a lower price just to make it fair,'" she said.

Ruiz prefers printed copies of books, but she said she sees the advantage of Cengage's digital plan.

"These days, in this era, people are doing everything online, so it's, like, why not try something like that?" she said.

By next fall, Cengage expects more than a million students to sign up for its subscription service. But the company will need buy-in from many more of the country's 20 million college students for its digital gamble pay off.

WGBH's Esteban Bustillos contributed to this story.

Related: A Faster, Cheaper Master's Degree-From MIT To Boot

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