We need to help students overcome their textbook troubles

As institutions re-examine the costs of attending university, the affordability of course materials is again moving to the centre of the conversation, writes Raj Kaji

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23 Aug 2021
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Student holding a wallet illustrating challenge of buying textbooks, affordability

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The pandemic has fundamentally altered higher education’s view of what students need. Before Covid-19, a handful of institutions had begun to champion emergency aid, providing small grants that made a major difference to whether a student stayed enrolled. Now, it’s a strategy deployed by every institution – with help from more than $35 billion (£25.4 billion) from the US government. Student-aid experts hope the trend is here to stay.

But an often-overlooked financial challenge remains: access to course materials.

As the pandemic has created greater financial hardship for students and families across the country, 65 per cent of students reported not buying a textbook because of the cost – even as 90 per cent said they believed doing so would negatively impact their grades. Even worse, this phenomenon is not entirely new, with 63 per cent of students forgoing textbooks in 2019.

As an entrepreneur who leads a company in the e-textbook and digital course materials space, this is a challenge I’ve seen up close. I first noticed these trends 15 years ago when I worked at Walden University, one of the largest providers of online and continuing education for adult learners. Leading business and engineering programmes comprising about 6,000 students, I saw that much more could be done to address this connection between course materials and student outcomes.

Over the past decade, textbook prices have risen by about 90 per cent. In one survey, 43 per cent of students said they had skipped meals and 30 per cent had skipped a trip home in order to afford textbooks. Nearly 70 per cent of students said they worked during the school year to pay for the books. About one-third of students said they had registered for fewer classes to limit the cost of textbooks. Half of students who skip buying textbooks see their grades suffer as a result. Perhaps unsurprisingly, research shows that increased access to textbooks improves retention.

Many students face a gut-wrenching “last dollar” decision, forced to choose between spending on food and housing or on textbooks. By developing a tightly coordinated strategy for deploying course materials, colleges can ensure that it’s a choice no student has to make.

Tackling choice overload

While the high price of textbooks is the root of this challenge, the solution is not as simple as ensuring all course materials are free. The rise of digital content and open educational resources (OER) over the past two decades has long promised more affordable options for students. OER Commons curates a repository of 50,000 of these resources (not to mention countless national, state and regional initiatives supported with public and grant funding). A 2020 survey found that the number of faculty who were “very aware” or “aware” of OER and Creative Commons licensing rose to 31 per cent in 2018-19, up from 17 per cent in 2014. But just 15 per cent of faculty required students to use the resources.

Like users endlessly scrolling through Netflix, learners, instructors and administrators are stymied by an abundance of price points and delivery options. They need guidance. Widespread embrace and use are dependent on institutions adopting an effective coordination strategy.

California’s community colleges started implementing such a strategy in 2018, providing students with access to OER in an effort to create degree pathways with no textbook costs. Students enrolled in the courses that had access to free textbooks saw marked improvement in their educational outcomes. The grades of Pell grant recipients were 7.6 per cent higher in courses with free course materials than grades of students in courses without.

Curation for completion: guided pathways for course materials

Free doesn’t always mean better, however. The broader challenge is that institutions require students to buy textbooks and other course materials but make the purchase of materials optional.

While some colleges and universities might choose an OER-first strategy, others find it makes more sense to impose cost limits across an institution or specific departments or to build costs for digital textbooks into student fees and tuition. A college with many online learners might opt for an all-digital strategy, while a commuter campus that caters to rural students with limited internet access might instruct professors to avoid digital textbooks.

Whatever the strategy, the goal should be to ensure every student has access to the textbooks they need on day one.

When the University of California, Davis began offering digital course materials through its learning management system for a flat $199 fee per term, students who opted into the programme were 17 per cent less likely to drop a course. In other words, for those who opted into the programme, UC Davis took away the choice as to whether they would purchase the materials. Similar to how the guided pathway movement has transformed student success rates at community colleges, by limiting the options, we also limit the potential stumbling blocks.

In the wake of a pandemic that has caused the most significant drop in college enrolments in a generation, higher education is rightly awakening to the impact of basic financial needs on college access and completion. Student hunger and housing insecurity are top of mind at many institutions. Adopting a strategy to address the high price of course materials – and the immense financial and learning costs to students – is the only path forward.

Raj Kaji is the chief executive officer of Akademos, a US-based digital textbook and course content platform that works with colleges and universities to enhance college access and affordability and student success. Earlier in his career, he served as a vice-president at Walden University, where he was responsible for about 6,000 students and 225 employees. He was also a strategy and finance professional for Laureate Education in Europe and the US.


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