Rebels in the Campus Bookstore

A guest post by Will Cross, Director of Copyright and Digital Scholarship at North Carolina State University

As the semester winds down most normal people are sweating through final projects, scheduling visits with family and friends, or looking forward to a well-deserved holiday break by the fire (or at least the warming glow of the new Star Wars movie).  I can’t stop thinking about textbooks.

Several recent events have kept this topic on my mind.  First, Kevin and I are preparing to teach a class in the spring and we’re currently putting the finishing touches on our assigned readings.  Sitting at the breakfast table working through the syllabus, I was struck by a seemingly-unrelated comment from my wife, Kimberly, who is finishing her first semester in a doctoral program.  Making her own plans for the spring, she noted “I need to decide if I’m going to renew my statistics textbook.”

Readers who have been out of school for a few years might be surprised that many students like Kimberly rent, rather than purchase, their more expensive textbooks.  If textbook rental companies like Chegg and College Book Renter are not familiar names, you may also be surprised by how quickly textbook prices have spiraled out of control in the past decade.  Increasing at nearly triple the rate of inflation, textbook costs have outpaced rises in health care and housing prices, leaving students with an expected bill of more than $1,200 a year.

Faced with these unsustainable costs, students like Kimberly find themselves in an arms race, seeking alternative channels to acquire textbooks while publishers work to plug leaks in their captive marketplace.  Indeed, one of the largest copyright cases decided by the Supreme Court in recent years resulted from publishers’ attempt to create a “super-property” right in order to quash the sale of less expensive international textbooks.  The following year a casebook company attempted something similar using license provisions to strip property rights from students who “purchased” (ironically) their property law textbook.

While prices have gone up, student spending has not always followed suit, with many students renting, borrowing, or pirating textbooks.  Many more simply choose their courses and majors based on the costs of textbooks or delay their purchases to determine the extent to which a title is used in class, setting them back days or weeks in assigned readings.  Of greatest concern, a recent PIRG survey revealed that more than 65% of students simply muddle through with no textbook, even though the majority recognized that this presented a “significant concern” for their ability to successfully complete the course.  As a result, more than 10% of students fail a course each year because they simply cannot afford the book.

Textbook costs have priced many students out of equal participation in higher education and colleges and universities should regard this as social justice issue that threatens students’ academic progress.  Students have written powerfully about these issues on social media, using hashtags like #textbookbroke to document the burdens

created by high prices.  For example, tweets from Kansas’ #KUopentextbook project have documented the harm done by students’ lost opportunities to travel to conferences, take unpaid internships, and compete on equal footing in the classroom.  As one student put it, “my wage shouldn’t determine my GPA.”

Closed, commercial textbooks also do significant harm to instructional design and academic freedom, forcing instructors to use one-size-fits-all books rather than diverse, tailored course materials.  This issue received national attention in November when an instructor was formally reprimanded for refusing to assign a $180 algebra book written by the chair and vice chair of his department.  As SPARC’s Nicole Allen notes, the well-intentioned practice of assigning a single book for multiple sections was designed to support a strong local used-book market but in practice it often entrenches a system of static commercial works.  It can also homogenize educational materials, limiting them to publisher-approved narratives that inhibit an instructor’s ability to bring her own voice and experience into the classroom.  Indeed, many publishers include value-added materials like test banks and pre-made assignments designed to create textbooks that are fully “teacher-proof.”

Students are often caught in the crossfire of a broken textbook market where books are sold by a small group of for-profit publishers who control 80% of the market, and purchasing decisions are made by faculty instructors but students are asked to pick up the bill.  This situation – where for-profit publishers leverage faculty incentives to exploit a captive academic market – should sound familiar to anyone working to bring open access to scholarly publishing.  The scale, however, is quite different: the textbook market exceeds the scholarly journal market by roughly $4 billion each year.

As they have with open access, academic stakeholders have begun to rebel, designing open materials that are not just cheaper than closed works but are positively better.  These open educational resources (OER’s) may be peer-reviewed Creative Commons-licensed textbooks like those found in Rice University’s OpenStax program or the University of Minnesota-led Open Textbook Network. They also encompass modular learning objects like those found in the MERLOT repository or even full courses like those offered through MIT’s OpenCourseWareCommunity colleges and system-wide efforts like Affordable Learning Georgia have been particularly effective in this space, with programs like Tidewater’s “Z-Degree” that completely remove student textbook costs from the equation.

In the past several years, academic libraries have joined the fray, raising awareness, offering grants, and collaborating with faculty authors to create a diverse body of open educational resources.  In the NCSU Libraries, we have followed the outstanding examples of institutions like Temple and UMass-Amherst by offering grants for faculty members to replace closed, commercial works with open, pedagogically-transformative OERs.  These projects create massive efficiencies for libraries – spending a few thousand dollars to save students millions – and a growing body of empirical data indicates that student learning and retention are improved by open materials.

It’s no surprise that an open textbook would be more effective than one that a third of students can’t afford to buy.  The greatest potential for OERs, however, comes from the way they empower instructors and engage with library expertise.  The “teacher proof” books offered today frequently reduce instructors to hired hands, reciting homogenized narratives approved by for-profit publishers.  In contrast, as one recent study concluded, an OER “puts ownership of curriculum directly back into the hands of teachers, both encouraging them to reflect on how the materials might be redesigned and improved and empowering them to make these improvements directly.”  Combined with support from libraries for instructional design, copyright and licensing, and digital competencies, OERs have the potential to transform pedagogy at the deepest levels.

For today’s students, textbook prices mean more than just a few extra days of subsisting on ramen noodles.  Too often, students have to choose between adding another thousand dollars to an already historical debt load or trying to get by without essential resources and closed, and commercial textbooks often leave faculty instructors with no choice at all.   These, to borrow a phrase, aren’t the books we’re looking for.

4 thoughts on “Rebels in the Campus Bookstore”

  1. “As a result, more than 10% of students fail a course each year because they simply cannot afford the book.” Wow! Would you kindly share the source of that statement?

  2. On a related topic but at a different level, I’ve always wondered why every school district in America has to purchase the same basic American history textbooks, at a tremendous cost. Why can’t the federal DOE spend its time and money creating open access, scholarly, high quality public school texts that any district could use? That would free up funds for special ed teachers or other local ed needs. All of the “basic” level material at all levels – K-16 or so, could be open access. Teachers could use them as the backbone of the course, and enhance it any way they chose. The updated editions of current textbooks aren’t worth the high prices.

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