College textbooks: Student PIRGs on Northeast Public Radio

Media Hit | WAMC Northeast Public Radio

Student PIRGs Political Director Dan Xie was recently featured on WAMC Northeast Public Radio to discuss our new report on automatic textbook billing. Listen to the audio and read the transcript from the conversation below. 


 The Best of Our Knowledge explores topics on learning, education, and research coming up. College textbooks can be a necessary part of coursework, but they’re often pricey. A new report examines automatic textbook buying. And a new effort is seeking to assist college presidents in preparing students for civic life.

I’m Lucas Willard, host of The Best of Our Knowledge.


You’re listening to The Best of Our Knowledge. I’m Lucas Willard. Textbooks are an often necessary and expensive part of college coursework. A popular practice among colleges and universities is to provide students with automatic textbook billing. While it may mean students don’t have to worry about starting a course with an incomplete set of books, it raises questions about whether the practice is in the student’s financial interests. A report from Student PIRGs examined 171 contracts for course materials at 92 institutions, and says that students enrolled in automatic billing programs have fewer ways to save on the cost of education. To learn more, I spoke with report co-author and Student PIRGs national Political Director Dan Xie.

Dan: One thing to know about the Student PIRGs is that we’re a national network of student-run nonprofits. So college and university students decide the campaigns that we run. They look at the issues that impact them and then tell the staff what to look into. And they brought it to us and went, “Hey, actually there’s this new thing that’s happening where we are being billed for our course materials, not being told that we can opt-out. And then not being told how to opt-out once we figure out that this is how we’re being provided our course materials.” And so, once we learned about that, we went, “Okay, how widespread is it? How does this impact the free market where students get to actually choose how they want to get their course materials? How does this impact faculty? And is it fulfilling the promises that these programs make? That they’re going to be more affordable and more accessible for students?” So that’s how we decided to take a look at the issue.

Lucas: So, essentially, the way it works is colleges and universities have agreements in place with the textbook publishers, correct? And then there’s a transaction that happens between the bookstore and the college, and then it’s passed along to the student, and then the money is reimbursed to the parties that be. Could you sort of help me break down how exactly it happens?

Dan: Yeah, so it either happens between a publisher or a digital company that aggregates a bunch of online textbooks and the school itself or a third party bookstore, so in one way or another, it’s a company that provides textbooks and then some entity at the school and they say “Okay, we’ll provide these resources.” But in order to actually get the discount you have to get a certain percentage of the students opted in or have a quota. So many of these contracts create a financial incentive to minimize the number of students who opt-out of them. And this is actually a selling point for these programs. One auto billing program advertises that they have a “90 percent sell through rate”, which translates to higher net revenues for publishers and schools. So it’s no wonder that so many students that we talk to say that they don’t know that they are enrolled in the program. And once they found out they were, they couldn’t find out how to opt-out. And anecdotally, how these programs work is not really advertised to students or to faculty. We actually know of students who’ve had to pay for optional books through these auto billing programs because their professors didn’t know that the students would be automatically charged if they include the optional books in the program. So it’s clear that there’s an incentive to have students opt in and not have them look at other options.

Lucas: So I would guess that if I was maybe a first year student and I was enrolling in a college and I was about to take my first college courses, I might see a value in saying, “Hey, hey, the school is providing the textbooks. I don’t have to go run around to the bookstore. I don’t have to find something that might be sold out. It’s a guaranteed thing, on day one, I’ll have my books.” And then I think about later in college when I was doing everything I could to try to avoid purchasing textbooks. So is this a trend that you’ve seen where students, you know, maybe they were enrolled at first, and they might have thought it was a good idea. And then, as the reality of the costs of textbooks sinks in, that they’re saying, “Hey, I don’t really like these automatic payments. I don’t really like this plan.”?

Dan: What you’re getting at is exactly the problem, which is that auto billing sets off a chain reaction that reduces choices and reduces savings options for students. And these contracts seem to incentivize campuses and bookstores to stop students from opting out. And, you know, it’s been a while since I’ve taken economics, but I’m pretty sure that reducing consumer choice and market competition is not a recipe for creating savings.

And what you’re noting is that there are better ways to do this. Students shouldn’t have to opt out. They should be able to opt in. And if they do find value in these programs and how effective and easy it is for them to get the resources, and they don’t mind possibly paying more. That’s great. They’ll all opt in if it’s such a great program, if they do indeed save students money. What we looked at in our report was, okay, do we actually have the receipts? Because they’re claiming that they’re saving students money, but we were able to find no evidence of that. And it is true that the cost of college textbooks is no longer rising at, you know, eight times the rate of inflation like they were for 20 years. And that’s a good thing. But to say that it’s because of these programs is absolute correlation, not causation, right? You may as well say, Taylor Swift became astronomically popular at the same time that the cost of textbooks stopped rising. So therefore, Taylor Swift made the college textbooks market way cheaper. It’s absurd, right?

What we do know is that open textbooks, which are free, and you can remix them and students can actually download them for without paying anything – the usage of free open source textbooks has increased 50 percent in the same time period that the college cost of college textbooks has decreased. So you don’t need a receipt for that because those are free. It’s just very clear that those are directly saving students money. And we have some students who have three out of the four classes, have no cost of textbooks or course resources and you know, there are some campuses where they’re like, “yeah, I don’t really need to work on this campaign. We’re, we’re doing fine.” And then you have other campuses which have these programs where our students are like, “Man, this is just absurd because when I came in, I didn’t even know that this was a thing. And then all of a sudden, I got billed $240. I didn’t even know it was coming. And then the next year, I went, okay, what are all the ways that I can opt out?”

And one of the more nefarious features, I guess, or bugs of these programs is that students often have to opt in in order to actually do their homework or take their quizzes or tests. And so, one thing that proponents of the program will say is that students who opt out do worse. It’s like, yeah, no duh, because they literally can’t submit their homework, so they’re actively taking a cut in their grade, and they know that they are. So we’ve talked to students who are like, “Yeah, I just can’t afford this access code. I can’t afford to opt in. There’s no other options of getting it, because I literally can’t do my homework, but I just can’t afford it this semester. So I’m just gonna take a 20 percent hit to my grade, because I can’t afford this book.

Lucas: Wow. So students would rather just take the hit on their semester grade than pay for the textbook.

Dan: For some that are on the margins, and they’re already taking on so many hours of work, they’re making the choice between eating, paying their rent, or paying for their textbooks. And in the past, you could just borrow the book from the library or get it on reserve. You could borrow the book from a friend. And you never had to pay to actually do your homework or take the quizzes. And so it creates a really difficult tension for students who don’t have the resources to pay for the brand new book.

Lucas: How popular are these automatic billing programs right now? Are they growing in popularity in the U. S.?

Dan: We did our first review of contracts in 2020 and this is our second review. We reviewed 170 some contracts which cover schools that enroll more than a million students. And in our first report, we recommended ways that these contracts could benefit students. And unfortunately, we did not find that the contracts have improved. And the last survey, which I can send you the link, the last survey of how popular these contracts were saw an increase across the country of universities. Which makes sense, because these contracts creates a financial incentive to minimize the number of students who opt out, and the bookstores often give a portion of their financial gains to the universities when students buy from the automatic billing program.

Lucas: What’s the average price that a student will pay for their one semester of books?

Dan: It’s really hard to know. And that’s the other difficult thing with these programs. It’s really difficult to know apples to apples.

So my colleague was buying books for her son going into college. And the automatic program was four months. And you could buy the access codes somewhere else through another digital provider for three and a half months. And then there was another one that had one year access and none of them were parallel to each other. Some of them had additional workbooks that were included. Others had audio file that were included. None of them were unbundled. So you couldn’t just go, “Okay, here’s the unbundled book. I only want that.” And it is 10 a month. And that’s just how you pay for it. And so that’s one of the ways that they make it confusing for consumers is cause it’s not an unbundled product.

So it, it kind of is throwing back to the days where you had the Saran wrap around the CD and the workbook and the textbook itself, and then you went, “Okay, you have to buy this whole thing.” And so it’s hard to know apples to apples what it actually looks like, but we know that students pay 100, 200, 300 dollars for an access code, and I think it’s functionally way worse, because oftentimes you pay for it for a semester, and then the next semester you take Physics 2, and you need that same book again, so you have to pay for that access code again.

Some students have the access code expire before their final test, and so then they have to get a trial period, other students don’t see the value of having the whole book because they don’t know if the professor is going to use the whole thing, so they’ll just get a trial and try to do all their homework in the two and a half week trial that they have before they have even taken the course, so students are finding ways to get around it, but none of them are particularly good for their actual learning or education.

Lucas: I want to ask you about what you think about college libraries, because there are some discussions in some college and university systems. about doing away with a physical brick and mortar library and moving more materials online. Now, others have said, you know, if the course is taught at the college or university that the textbook needs to be in the school library, but I don’t know if we can count on that being a guarantee. So how do you see this going as more materials are moved into the digital realm and students may not have that ease of access of going and picking up a book in their campus library or making photocopies of a textbook in the campus library. What do you think the future holds?

Dan: I think the future is in open education resources or open textbooks. So these are books that professors and experts can write with an open license. And they are often peer reviewed and often can come with workbooks and homework and quizzes.

And it offers a couple of advantages. So, one, it’s digital, so it provides immediate access just like your typical access code or automatic billing course resource. And two, it’s free. So we love that and it removes that economic barrier for students who have already paid for tuition, have already paid for housing. And three, it allows professors to create course materials that are more relevant for their local community, and speak to their local community.

So professors can remix these books. They can add more diverse examples that are relevant to their students. They can add in anything that they particularly want to teach that maybe the textbook didn’t originally have. And so there are some really good studies out there that find that the completion rates with open textbooks are actually higher than with the traditional textbook overall.

And since 2015, there’s been a 50 percent increase in professors saying that they’ve used open textbooks in their courses. And that has really saved students a lot of money and increased their It’s just their educational experience overall.

The other thing that Libraries are doing, and I think librarians overall are very well aware of this problem, they have a lot of students coming to them and saying, “Hey, what’s the other option? I can’t afford this.”, and they’re often allies in the fight to make course materials more affordable, is that they can negotiate deals with publishers and then provide that digital resource to students more broadly. And so I think a lot of them are well aware of those options and fighting for students in that way. So physical or digital, I think librarians and libraries are a good place, both where we OER can be developed, and where traditional you know, copyrighted books can be provided online.

Lucas: Now, Dan, I wanted to ask you a question. I enrolled in college almost 19 years ago. I graduated high school in 2005, so I enrolled in the fall of 2005. I still have a biology textbook that’s now 19 years old. Do you have any college textbooks still on your shelf at home?

Dan: You know, I was kind of like you. I tried to PDF all of them. And find them for free and get them on reserves. So I actually don’t have any physical books because I had them all in paper that I photocopied. But that’s one of the benefits, right? You can have these – my partner does, she got her PhD in communications and she’s got a lot of books from college more, more theoretical books, too high bar for me – but you can access those down the line and that’s one of the big barriers with automatic billing – that they last for three, four months and then you no longer have that resource that you can look back on.

Lucas: I think I just didn’t want to get rid of mine because I paid so much for it.

Dan: [Laughs] You’re getting your money’s worth.

Lucas: Dan Xie, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I appreciate it.

Dan: Yeah. It was great chatting with you.

Dan Xie is Student PIRG’s National Political Director. You’re listening to The Best of Our Knowledge. I’m Lucas Willard.


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