Opinion: Why the Biden administration needs to crack down on ‘inclusive access’ for college textbooks

Why the Biden administration needs to crack down on ‘inclusive access’ for college textbooks

By Julia Trachtman

As a full-time college student paying tens of thousands of dollars a year, finding the most affordable textbooks is my priority. Even as an in-state student, tuition alone is a scary price. On top of that, finding the funds for rent, groceries, and then textbooks is a challenge. I am not the only one facing these financial problems. Approximately 78% of college students have to choose between paying for food or school with the majority of us having to spend our hard-earned paychecks on insanely expensive course materials.

When it comes to actually buying textbooks, I am constantly weighing my options. Should I buy a new or used textbook? Should I use the “inclusive access” program that my university promotes as a cheap and convenient alternative? Or should I save money by trying to find a free PDF (that may or may not exist) online and not buy the course materials at all, even though it might jeopardize my prospects of getting a good grade? The financial implications of these decisions are drastic enough that I need to spend time researching them when I should be studying. 

The Biden administration could help solve this dilemma soon. The U.S. Department of Education is considering adopting a rule to make inclusive access programs “opt in” rather than “opt out.” That would also have a positive side effect: It would remove the current disincentive created by opt-out automatic billing, which may bias schools against promoting or investing in free “open educational resources” (OER).

At the University of Pittsburgh, a few years ago, RedShelf’s inclusive access program became a popular choice for professors to use when assigning a textbook. The program seems simple: The university automatically charges any student enrolled in a class on their tuition bill for the textbook. You have until the end of the add/drop period to opt out of buying the textbook. 

However, the inclusive access program is much more complicated than it seems.

Most professors don’t know the program’s logistics and cannot assist their students in opting out, so some students end up paying for a textbook they didn’t want to buy because no one can help them navigate the program. Additionally, the opt-out period is usually no more than two weeks, which is insufficient time to decide whether the textbook is really necessary for success in the class. For one class, I initially (by default) opted in for a textbook and then, a week later, realized I didn’t need it. However, the opt-out period had already expired. 

Automatically adding textbook charges to tuition bills may seem like a smart way to easily track expenses. However, my textbook charge is misleadingly marked as a “course materials fee.” The textbooks’ costs seamlessly blend into my tuition so I don’t even realize how much publishers are charging. Because I never get an itemized list of the textbooks I automatically purchase, I have no idea if the cumulative costs are a good deal or not.

Contracts between colleges and third-party booksellers often include revenue-sharing provisions between the bookstore and the school. In other words, the school bills students for textbooks, pays the bookstore, and then receives a portion of that money back. This creates a potential conflict between students’ and the institution’s financial best interests. Therefore, colleges have little incentive to encourage faculty to use free online OER.

“Inclusive access” would be more inclusive if students could choose whether or not they want to buy a textbook instead of automatically being billed. The Biden administration promised to help students by cracking down on junk fees in higher education. Now, it’s time for the Department of Education to follow through on that promise. A great first step would be adopting its proposal to end automatic billing and make “inclusive access” programs opt-in rather than opt-out. Having more options would help students already paying tens of thousands of dollars a year for higher education.

Julia Trachtman is a third-year psychology student at University of Pittsburgh and serves as Business Manager of the Public Interest Research Group at Pitt.

Opt-in to transparency: Biden’s chance to protect students from predatory textbook billing

By Savannah Lebedeker

Automatic textbook billing, a practice by which colleges automatically charge students on their tuition bill for textbooks unless they opt out, creates unnecessary hardships for students already struggling with soaring college costs. I used to believe that this practice, otherwise known as “inclusive access,” did not adversely affect me — until I was unexpectedly charged more than $300 per semester for online textbooks that I rarely used in my classes. 

Textbook publishers, colleges and third-party booksellers promise that these programs will save students money. In reality, savings in these programs are difficult to evaluate, and it’s unclear if they save students money in any given case. What is clear is these programs impede students from using alternatives that might be more affordable or even free — notably, “open educational resources.” (OER). 

In addition, contracts between colleges and third-party booksellers often include revenue-sharing provisions between the bookstore and the school — the school bills students for textbooks, pays the bookstore, and then receives a portion of that money back.  “Inclusive access” doesn’t really “include” the students’ best interests. 

The Biden administration has acknowledged this issue and promised to reform automatic textbook billing practices. A proposed regulation from the U.S. Department of Education would give students the right to opt in to textbook charges, instead of having to navigate the complicated opt-out process. Given my experience, this shift could potentially save me or other college students hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars over the course of their education. 

However, as with any policy that threatens to reduce revenue, this proposed regulation has been met with fierce resistance from publishers and bookstores who benefit from the status quo. Their argument hinges on the misleading notion that automatic billing helps most students. 

At this critical juncture, President Joe Biden must stand firm. The choice is clear: side with the students or the publishers. By supporting the opt-in policy, Biden would not only fulfill a promise but also take a decisive stand against practices that burden students financially. This policy is not just about saving money—it’s about restoring autonomy and respect to students who are navigating the high-pressure and high-cost environment of higher education.

The pushback from publishers is predictable but must not be persuasive. Their business model thrives on keeping students’ choices at a minimum by making automatic purchases of expensive textbooks the default. The claim that this model provides cost-saving is a smokescreen, designed to obscure the reality that cheaper, more flexible options exist and that students should have easier access to more OER.

We students of America need the Biden administration to champion our cause. This is an opportunity to make a real, tangible difference in the lives of young people who are the future of this country.By endorsing the Department of Education’s proposed regulation, the president can help dismantle a system that preys on students’ need to purchase assigned class materials and instead, promote a saner approach to educational resources. It’s time to stand up for the principles of consumer choice and affordability in education. 

Savannah Lebedeker is a second-year political science student at Florida State University and serves as president of the Public Interest Research Group at FSU.