Some Colleges Are Relieving Student Worries by Making Textbooks Free
There’s a careful calculation that college students make at the beginning of each semester, one that might take a few weeks to fully suss out. Will I really need to buy textbooks for these classes? Are there any I can avoid purchasing at all?
That should come as no surprise, considering a recent CollegeBoard survey calculated that undergrads spent $1,240 on average for books and supplies during the 2020-21 academic year. That figure was $220 higher for two-year college students.
But thousands of students are starting the semester without having to worry about course material expenses at all. Some institutions are removing the burden by providing free textbooks to their entire undergraduate student body一and also for graduate students, in some cases.
‘Removing a Barrier’
The 1,300 undergraduate students at Muskingum University in Ohio are guaranteed to receive either digital textbook access or hard copy books by the time classes start this week, says Philip Laube, the university’s vice president of finance and operations.
He’s seen firsthand how students trying to save money put off their textbook purchases, only to later order outdated versions or wait anxiously for their books to be shipped later in the semester. About 60 percent of the private university’s students have “significant financial need,” he says.
“The worst is we see students say, ‘I can’t afford books and stay here, so I’m just not going to buy my books.’ And that has a real effect on their academic performance,” Laube says. “That was not the way to best serve our students. The best way was to make sure they have the tools and resources they need to succeed at Muskingum, and textbooks are a big part of class delivery.”
Laube says Muskingum University began working on its plan to cover textbook costs before the pandemic, which put further financial pressure on students.
“We see the students who struggle to pay their bills, and we know who’s not buying books,” Laube says. “We viewed [free textbooks] as removing a barrier to some of our students’ success, or a way to improve on our values to students.”
The university is part of Barnes and Noble's First Day Complete, wherein colleges foot the bill for course materials with no additional cost to students and the company ensures delivery before the first day of classes. North Carolina A&T State University signed into the program to deliver free textbooks to its undergraduate and graduate students for the next two years, made possible by pandemic relief funding earmarked for higher education.
That’s also the program Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina is using to make sure its approximately 4,700 undergraduates will get their textbooks this fall.
Pamala Turner, director of Business and Auxiliary Services of Winston-Salem State University, points to research that estimates the proportion of students who have their course materials on the first day of class fell to 29 percent in 2020, down by 11 points in just three years. That causes problems for students and professors alike.
“We know we can count a lot of that due to COVID situation,” Turner says. “Some of them almost probably go through the whole quarter without a book. By having books on the first day, it’s less frustrating, they don’t fall behind, and it has to be more exciting for the professor because they are actually able to teach.”
While graduate students at Winston-Salem State University are not included in the program, Turner says they will each receive a voucher of up to $500 for textbooks.
Support at the Right Place and Time
Why does the cost of textbooks continue to be a pressure point for students year after year, even as spending on course materials appears to be decreasing?
Paula Umaña is the director of Institutional Transformation at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University. She says the root cause is an education model that centered more on business than equity.
“Students do not always meet the stereotype of 18 to 21 [years old]. We have parenting students, returning students, real college students,” Umaña says. “The real economics of college have shifted so much during the last 70 years, and we have not made adjustments to all those changes. Students are in an equation that has not adapted to the circumstances.”
Colleges are getting less government funding, she says, while seeing enrollment drop amid the pandemic. Students today are weighing the benefits of a degree against the cost not only of tuition but the burden of paying, she says, which could include taking out loans, working multiple jobs and finding ways to cover basic needs like childcare.
“Textbooks are part of this business model. People have to pay this cost because there are no other options,” Umaña says. “They have to decide whether to eat or pay for the book, whether to pay rent or pay for the book. It’s a one-time cost, but it has multiple implications of students sacrificing utilities, for example, and then putting their housing at risk.”
Even when pandemic aid was available, a Hope Center study found that 52 percent of students did not apply because they didn’t know how. Among those who did receive emergency aid, 77 percent of four-year students and 67 percent of two-year students said they used funds to cover class materials.
Umaña says aid programs weren’t perfect, as evidenced by the rate of applicants. There’s a stigma to applying for help, she says, and many students who need aid feel there are others who could more urgently use the assistance.
Colleges and universities need to take on a student’s perspective and assess the ease with which students can access aid programs, Umaña says.
“The model should talk about customer service, centering basic needs, and the basic needs help students meet their academic needs,” she says. “Graduation and retention is tied to a students’ ability to access support on time, in an easy way and have a safety net in place so they can navigate the systems that are already complicated enough higher ed.”