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DEMO: Reflections on the 2019 Textbook Affordability Conference

Career and Workforce Development Assessment, Evaluation, and Research AVP or "Number Two"
April 30, 2019 Alexa Wesley Chamberlain NASPA

The costs of textbooks are one piece of the college affordability puzzle. Recently introduced by Senator Dick Durban, the Affordable College Textbook Act of 2019 speaks to the nationwide and federal recognition of the problem’s impact on the lives of students. The bill calls for an updated Government Accountability Office report on the price trends of college textbooks and proposes to expand the use of openly licensed course materials that can be freely used, shared, and modified. While colleges and universities have made progress in their effort to offer innovative options for reducing textbook costs, students are still experiencing difficulties affording the rising prices of course materials.

According to a College Board report on national trends in college pricing, full-time undergraduate students enrolled at public and private and two- and four-year institutions are experiencing increased costs for textbooks and supplies. Students at four-year institutions spent an average of $1,240 on books and supplies in the 2018-19 school year, and those enrolled at public two-year institutions spent an average of $1,440. Unexpectedly high prices of course materials can have a disproportionality negative effect among students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and students who are first in their families to go to college. For example, students managing competing expenses may choose to skip meals or delay paying rent in order to afford textbooks; drop certain majors due to the high costs associated with required course materials; register for fewer classes; or avoid purchasing the course materials entirely: all decisions that can undermine a student’s likelihood of success, persistence, and timely completion at an institution.

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The Affordable College Textbook Act of 2019 speaks to the nationwide and federal recognition of how high cost of textbooks impacts lives of students

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As part of an effort to create new paths to affordable course content, the National Association of College Stores (NACS) convened a variety of campus practitioners, distributors, and experts for its annual Textbook Affordability Conference, hosted at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Conference discussions revealed several recommendations with implications for student affairs professionals and their work in the textbook affordability conversation.

Understand the lived student experience

Institutions should examine current efforts and gauge the usability of new initiatives using a student lens. Policies, practices, and processes in relation to accessing course materials may be outdated or misaligned with the preferences and realities of today’s students. During the conference, one attendee shared how their institution’s bookstore extended its textbook rental period after recognizing how the end-of-semester book return deadlines and late fees placed additional stress on students finishing exams.

The case of inclusive-access programs offers a larger scale example. Inclusive-access is a digital textbook delivery option where students in a course are automatically billed for – and automatically receive – course materials as part of their tuition and course fees at a lower price point than they would have paid if the materials were purchased individually. While the model is growing in popularity, critics claim that it limits student choice and that it can be incredibly difficult for students who prefer print materials to opt-out of the program. One of the conference panelists explained that after implementing inclusive-access at their institution, students shared feedback in course evaluations saying that the model did not fit with their needs and that what they really wanted was earlier notice of textbook requirements for each course before the registration period. As a result, the panelist’s institution has decided to roll back its inclusive access programs and is now reworking its instructional materials “adoption” cycle – a review and approval process for materials used in each course every term – so that required textbooks and their prices are available to students during times of critical decision making about courses. 

Student perspectives can be identified in a variety of ways, such as student focus groups or surveys, or by including a student representative during leadership meetings. Gathering information on student course material shopping habits and usage may also offer valuable insight on behavior and preferences specific to an institution. 

Engage in awareness building efforts

A key challenge discussed throughout the conference was about campus stakeholder gaps in communication regarding course material options. Research by the Babson Survey Research Group finds that less than one-in-five faculty members at two- and four-year institutions are aware of a departmental or institution level initiative to deal with the cost of course materials. One-pagers or guidelines around affordable course materials are examples of mechanisms for sharing information in an accessible and clear way.

Guides about textbook affordability efforts should be tailored to different audiences, primarily including faculty, bookstore and library staff, institution leadership, and students. Baseline elements of communications may include the institution/department/taskforce/group’s vision and values as related to course materials, as well as a summary of current efforts with possible definitions of each option. For students, some campuses may work to create a search engine that enables a student to search for a course and see the list of purchase options for textbooks. Hosting Q&A luncheons or information sessions can help ensure all stakeholders on campus have a common understanding of the course material processes, expectations, and options available to them. Student services administrators, in particular, can play an important role in providing students such information at multiple points, such as during orientation, advising sessions, or in residence halls. 

Enlist the support of many

Sustainable textbook affordability initiatives require the support, collaboration, and coordination of multiple stakeholders at an institution. Several conference participants discussed the need to have a seat at the decision-making table during conversations about the variety of course material purchasing options and how they impact student learning and financials. An institution-wide working group that explores such issues and opportunities for innovation might include managers from the campus bookstore and library, faculty, students, and administrators from student affairs, academic affairs, disability services, information technology, institutional research, financial aid, auxiliary services, and the business office.

Moreover, including student voice in the strategic planning process was strongly emphasized. A conference attendee shared how student employees who work at the campus bookstore are trained to engage with students who they hear are struggling with textbook costs or who have questions about the options available to them. Student employees at the bookstore and library are often the first line of interaction with students who are looking for guidance about course material options. Empowered with information and training, student employees can serve as valuable resources to students in need of guidance and also as liaisons for campus administrators.   

Find and remember your why

TAC 2019 highlighted the need for attendees to find the “why” behind campus-wide content strategies. As a collective, the driving purpose behind textbook affordability initiatives is to support student learning, retention, and completion through the selection and delivery of affordable, accessible, and effective course content options. The conference provided an opportunity for attendees to hear the different ways that institutions are pursuing their why, while helping to spur discussion about the data metrics and measures needed to effectively tell their own story to a variety of audiences. Reminding yourself of the purpose of the work and seeing its impact on student success can serve as an energizing practice that can help refocus efforts and clarify the path forward for textbook affordability initiatives.