A New Cost at College: Digital Access Codes

DIGITAL books and study tools don’t weigh down backpacks as heavy textbooks do. But fees for the codes to get them may be a financial burden for some college students, a new report found.

An analysis from the Student Public Interest Research Groups, state-based groups that advocate for causes like affordable textbooks, found that students in many courses may be asked to purchase online educational materials that require one-time digital access codes.

The codes are unique serial numbers that give students access to a variety of online materials, like digital books, study guides, homework assignments, quizzes and tests.

Sometimes, students must purchase a physical textbook to obtain the necessary code, while in other cases the codes can be bought separately.

“They’re the next frontier in the textbook affordability battle,” said Nicole Allen, director of open education at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition.

The average cost of a stand-alone access code, purchased at a campus bookstore, is about $100, the report found. The cost when bundled with a textbook varies depending on factors like whether the textbook is digital or print, but averaged $126. Across the colleges and majors analyzed, about a third of courses included access codes among the required course materials, the report found.

The analysis considered just 10 schools. But the mix of institutions studied — private, four-year colleges and public universities as well as community colleges — offered a snapshot of what students are probably encountering on campus these days, said Ethan Senack, higher education advocate at the Student PIRGs.

Textbook costs have long been a sore spot for college students. According to a report in August from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, textbook prices have risen 88 percent over the last decade, significantly more than the increase of 63 percent for tuition and fees over the same period. The College Board estimates that the average student budget for textbooks and supplies at a private, nonprofit, four-year college was $1,249 for the 2015-16 school year.

Students have used a variety of strategies to manage costs, Mr. Senack said, like buying used textbooks, sharing a copy with another student, or renting physical or digital textbooks. More recently, a movement has emerged to promote “open source” textbooks, which are available free online.

Such steps help explain why data from the National Association of College Stores, a trade group for thousands of campus retailers, show that student spending on books and supplies generally has been flat or declining, even though textbook prices have risen. Average annual student spending on required “course materials” — a category that includes new and used textbooks, access codes and digital books — declined 14 percent to $602 for the 2015-16 academic year, from $701 in 2007-8. (Last year’s spending, however, was an uptick over the average of $563 in 2014-15).

The main reason students acquired an access code, the college store association’s research arm said, was that their instructor required it.

Richard Hershman, vice president of government relations at the association, said the new report “raises a number of valid concerns around digital.” He said that pricing and distribution models for digital materials were evolving and that student concerns should be taken into account. Faculty typically decide what materials are required, he said, and many instructors see online tools as helpful to students. It may be, he suggested, that they can offer an “opt out” alternative for students who are unable to purchase them.

Student advocates say they worry that the proliferation of digital access codes may make it harder for students to use cost-cutting alternatives, like sharing — or even skipping the textbook purchase entirely. The move to unique digital codes essentially rules out sharing, they said, since the codes are usually attached to an individual student account and, once activated, cannot be reused.

“For any student who was not paying full price before,” Mr. Senack said, “this is definitely a concern.”

Jeanne Ryder, a sophomore at Rutgers University, said she learned about the drawbacks of access codes last year, when she spent hundreds of dollars on a hardcover Italian textbook that was stolen, along with her backpack. The book had come with an online activation code, she said, but it was missing and the publisher told her she would have to buy a new one. She was unable to obtain a new replacement code, even though she had her receipt. She ended up borrowing the book from another student.

Here are some questions and answers on college textbooks and access codes:

How can I keep the price of textbooks manageable?

Most students visit their campus bookstore for convenience, but it’s also wise to check prices online. Sites like CampusBooks.com compare prices for renting and buying from various online merchants. Also, you can check with your school’s library to see if it makes copies available, or if it offers open source textbooks.

What if I can’t afford to pay for a digital access code?

Ms. Allen suggests discussing your situation with your instructor. Sometimes purchasing the code is merely recommended. But if the teacher requires the code for a class, students may have no option but to buy it if they want to take the course. “They’re pretty stuck,” Mr. Senack said, “and that’s our concern.” The college store association data from 2016 indicate that more than a quarter of faculty at two- and four-year institutions said they would require students to buy access codes in the coming year.

Can I buy a used textbook with an access code?

In some cases, yes. Some campus stores and online sellers sell used books along with access codes, Mr. Senack said. And sometimes, students who buy a textbook that comes with an access code may not be required to use the online materials, so they may sell the code separately. But when buying from private channels, it’s “buyer beware,” Ms. Allen said, as there is the risk the code may be invalid.