That Digital Textbook? Your College Has Billed You for It

That Digital Textbook? Your College Has Billed You for It

Colleges are increasingly assigning digital books and study tools instead of paper textbooks. But one electronic option in particular has come under criticism from some student advocates.

That model is called inclusive access, in which colleges have contracts with education publishers to provide required digital texts and study tools at a discount. Then, colleges automatically bill students when they enroll, as part of their tuition. Colleges began adopting these digital programs over the past decade in response to expensive increases in textbook prices. Now, courses at hundreds of colleges offer inclusive access programs.

The benefit, publishers say, is that all students are able to use required textbooks and tools when they begin taking a class, at a more affordable cost. Research by both student advocates and campus bookstores has shown that students sometimes skip buying required materials — often because of cost, but also because they think they won’t actually need the materials.

Federal rules allow colleges to automatically bill students for course materials if the colleges meet certain requirements, like an agreement with a publisher to charge below-market prices or give students the choice to opt out of the purchase.

But skeptical student advocates say the benefits of some programs can be murky.

Discounts can be hard to quantify because the original price of the materials is unclear, according to a report released on Thursday by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, an advocacy group, which examined dozens of contracts between publishers and more than 30 two- and four-year public colleges. Also, some contracts allow publishers to reduce the discounts if too few students participate. In some cases, quotas to maintain lower pricing are as high as 90 percent of students taking a course.

“The idea of discounts sounds good on its face, but the contracts aren’t living up to the hype,” said Kaitlyn Vitez, higher education campaign director for the education fund and the author of the report.

Further, the report found, it’s not always obvious how students can opt out of the billing if they want to search elsewhere for textbooks.

“Students should always have a choice of how to pay,” said Nick Sengstaken, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who is a member of the student government and an advocate for textbook affordability.

Pearson, the dominant education publisher in the United States, has inclusive access agreements with about 900 institutions, said Nik Osborne, the company’s senior vice president of strategy and business operations. Not all courses offer the option. Typically, a professor or department elects to participate for a specific class, he said. Students must be allowed to opt out, he said, but relatively few do because the cost is low.

The company recently announced plans to shift away from traditional textbooks toward more affordable digital options. Students can buy an electronic textbook for about $40, and a package that includes extra digital tools for about $60 to $80. Students in the company’s inclusive access program pay less. The cost can be up to 70 percent cheaper than what a student would pay for a new textbook, Pearson says.

“We believe strongly that digital is a better experience for students,” Mr. Osborne said, but print options remain available for students who want them. Pearson rents hard-copy textbooks for about $60 apiece.

Mr. Osborne and a spokeswoman for two other big education publishers, McGraw-Hill and Cengage, stressed that colleges and universities billed their students for inclusive access programs and that it was up to them to clearly communicate steps for opting out.

High textbook prices have long been a bane for students, but students now have more workarounds. They can shop online for lower-cost used textbooks. Or they could turn to a growing option: free, open-source online textbooks. Publishers also say inclusive access programs have helped lower costs.

An annual survey by the National Association of College Stores, a group representing independent bookstores, found that student spending on required course materials fell 14 percent to $415 in the 2018-19 academic year from the year earlier.

“The landscape is complex and changing,” said Nicole Allen, director of open education at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, which advocates free, open-source digital textbooks.

McGraw-Hill and Cengage have announced plans to merge. The deal is under antitrust review by the Department of Justice and faces opposition from consumer groups and college bookstores. If the merger is approved, the companies said, they will “accelerate” their efforts to make texts more affordable, including inclusive access and Cengage’s flat-fee, digital textbook subscription service.

Here are some questions and answers about online textbook programs:

How can I tell if a college course uses inclusive access?

Typically, courses will be flagged when students register online for classes. Some colleges may use different names, like “innovative pricing” or digital discount” programs. If you want to opt out but are unsure how to proceed, contact the college or the course’s professor for help. “The reality is that students don’t necessarily know how to go through these processes,” Ms. Allen said.

Are there any free digital textbook options?

Many institutions are experimenting with “open source” online books in an attempt to address many of the issues that the inclusive access programs do, but at no cost. OpenStax, a nonprofit group at Rice University, says more than half of colleges and universities in the United States offer its free, peer-reviewed digital textbooks. OpenStax also offers a list of questions for instructors to consider before offering inclusive access courses.

What if I prefer physical textbooks?

Digital is ascendant, but some students prefer old-fashioned textbooks so they can jot notes in the margins. The college bookstore survey found that as of 2019, about half of students prefer either a print textbook or one that combines a physical book with supplemental online support.

Campus libraries may have hard copies available, and students can shop for new or used textbooks to buy or rent through campus bookstores or their websites, and from online sellers like Amazon and Chegg.

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