Complaints about the textbook subscription deals that colleges are signing with large publishers and retailers landed in federal court last week when a group of off-campus bookstores filed a class-action lawsuit alleging the practice amounts to creating an illegal monopoly.
At the heart of the case are so-called “inclusive access” programs. Under this model, college students don’t procure materials on their own, but instead pay a fee (sometimes added to their tuition bills) in exchange for access to a bundle of digital textbooks and courseware systems assigned for their classes. Publishers that arrange these deals with colleges say the approach cuts costs for students because materials come at bulk rates cheaper than typical retail prices.
But in their complaint, plaintiffs Campus Book Company, BJJ Corporation, CBSKY, CBSNM and Renttext.com argue that these subscriptions harm independent bookstores by effectively eliminating secondary markets for course materials. That also harms students, the plaintiffs argue, by undermining their ability to save money by renting, borrowing or buying used texts.
“There’s nothing inclusive about it,” says Kaitlyn Vitez, higher ed campaign director for U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which advocates for college affordability and is critical of textbook subscription deals. “It’s simply a way to ensure as many students as possible are purchasing these materials.”
Named in the suit are Barnes & Noble Education Inc., McGraw-Hill Global Education Holdings, Pearson Education Inc., Cengage Learning Inc., Follett Higher Education Group Inc., and the Educational Publishers Enforcement Group.
“Pearson is aware of this lawsuit and is reviewing the complaint. Pearson stands by the inclusive access model, which offers real benefits to students, instructors and institutions,” said Scott Overland, director of media relations for Pearson, in an email to EdSurge.
Colleges, retailers and publishers are legally required to allow students to opt out of textbook subscriptions. Yet the lawsuit alleges that opt-out processes are “opaque, confusing, and difficult if not impossible to execute,” and that publishers and retailers sometimes share misinformation to discourage students from opting out. A similar allegation was made in a lawsuit filed a year ago by an independent bookstore in Charleston, South Carolina, against Trident Technical College.
Even if a student opts out of her institution's subscription plan, she may have trouble finding assigned digital resources and systems elsewhere. Independent stores say they sometimes have trouble securing a supply of online access codes to sell to students. And once a code is used, it typically can’t be shared or resold.
“We’ve worked with students who are behind and had to retake classes because of the negative impact skipping access codes has had on their performance,” Vitez says.
The new lawsuit was filed as the U.S. Department of Justice continues to review a proposed merger between Cengage and McGraw-Hill, a possibility that also stirred up concerns about a textbook monopoly.
Regardless of the outcome of the new lawsuit, independent bookstores will likely find a way to adapt to digital course materials and online delivery methods, just as they did when textbook rentals first challenged their business model, says Richard Hershman, vice president of government relations for the National Association of College Stores.
“A lot of the private stores I know, and I know some of the plaintiffs in this case, they’re pretty entrepreneurial, dynamic, smart people,” Hershman says. “As markets evolve, they’ve figured out ways to change and evolve with the markets.”