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Textbook Affordability

Financial Wellness
July 20, 2015 Eden C. Tullis

On average, students are now spending about $1,100 on books per year. Sometimes, this cost even competes with the demand for rent or food. Now there’s no disputing that assigned readings are beneficial to the learning process and instrumental in the college experience, but just because textbooks are valued and expected, doesn’t mean that students aren’t weighing the importance of purchasing them. They might be asking themselves, do I really need the latest edition even though the professor is requesting it? Could I share with my roommate who is also taking the class? Could I get away with buying the book in September? I could cover the cost then!

Fortunately, there are options out there that may have not existed previously. Students can now rent books or download articles from online portals that their professors have uploaded. They can also “buy back” their books. This won’t make them a profit, but it does allow them to walk away with some money at the end of the school year. Amazon alone is a main contributor to affordable book prices by competing with campus bookstores. In my six years as a student, that’s what I relied on.  I’d get the book info, compare prices, and make my purchase. I was even fortunate enough to go to an institution that had a Textbook Corner right near campus. Managed by the company Skyo, the store’s website works as a search engine that offers free shipping and capitalizes on used books. The eBook has been another solution that’s emerged. The act of actually downloading a book onto an eReader is more inexpensive than purchasing a brand new textbook and/or having it shipped to your address. The disadvantage of the eReader is the cost of the technology itself, the common constraint with most modern technology.

All these examples provide options for students, and as we’ve seen with social media, the more options our students have at their fingertips, the more likely they are to go out and search for the one that works best for them. That’s why I see textbook affordability programs as the upcoming contender for this additional cost. Some states are even prioritizing this movement. Take Washington State for example. In their 2014-15 agenda, the Washington Association of Community and Technical Colleges Student Association (WACTCSA) created six action items, two of which were focused on how our schools should be the ones funding textbooks.   

Led by individual organizations or departments on our college campuses, these programs can promote easier access to books that national companies cannot. There’s no shipping involved, and the purpose is to serve a student’s needs instead of treat the situation as a transaction. These programs don’t just provide a resource that can support students individually, either. If they choose to do so, students can also view this as an opportunity to give back to their peers- a group of people they are more likely connected with. Colleges participating in textbook affordability usually turn to their colleagues in TRiO Programs or multicultural departments that serve underrepresented students. Of course, the biggest issue for providing such a service is funding. .  

As an employee of South Seattle College (SSC), I have been impressed with two programs that have been maintained and exist to alleviate the cost of textbooks for students.  The first is run by United Student Association. About 400 books are exchanged each quarter with the buy and sell bulletin which challenges students to communicate and connect with one another more directly. There’s an online version that has existed in the past and the USA hopes to bring that back later in 2015. Our Cultural Center offers the second alternative, a lending program (TLP). 

The TLP is essentially open to anyone but was first created to support underserved students. For each student who applies, it gives them the chance to obtain one book per quarter. It is the most popular resource offered by the Cultural Center, and for the 14-15 year, the staff has seen an increase in the number of students utilizing the service. With an allotment of $30,000, approximately 150 students were served in fall and over 200 students were helped in the spring. John Eklof, Cultural Center Coordinator, says there are two challenges to the system. The first difficulty keeping tabs on the collection. At the end of each quarter, John must track what books they have, and keep a tally of what books students need. This ensures that students don’t come to the office disappointed. The second difficulty is timing. John struggles with being fair and having to say no to students who are coming in obtain their book before the quarter begins or later in the quarter when the center is running out of the books that are in-demand. “The best part,” says John, “is the relief that students express. There’s usually an urgency in their voice when they come to me- they’re financially stressed.”  It’s why we should consider how we can fund more of these programs or be more diligent in providing alternatives to required readings. When students can focus less on how strapped they are for cash, they’re more inclined to be fully present in the classroom. Let’s prevent the choice between books and the bare necessities. 

    Eden C. Tullis works in Campus Activities at South  Seattle College. She is also a regional rep for the  Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education  KC.