Bundling Textbook Costs with Tuition

With all the talk about the “unbundling” of education, it’s interesting to see several universities start to experiment with a re-bundling of sorts — that is, bundling textbook expenses along with students’ course fees and tuition, and as such requiring students purchase the course materials (often in digital format) for their classes. In doing so, the schools argue, they’re able to negotiate lower prices with publishers by promising bulk sales of textbooks and other materials.

Indiana University was among the first to pilot this sort of program several years ago, and similar efforts are underway at other schools. According to a recent story in USA Today, this includes the University of California-Berkeley, University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin, University of Virginia and Cornell University.

It’s an experiment that seems to be catching on with schools, with bookstores, and with publishers. The latter are looking to survive the shift from print to digital; the former want to help students afford the materials they need to do well in their classes.

A recent press release by Follett, which runs about 900 campus bookstores directly and services over 1600 indie ones as well, highlighted its plans for what it describes as “the next chapter in affordability” for college textbooks: IncludED, a program that “allows schools to provide required course materials to students as part of tuition or fees, ensuring students understand the full cost of education upfront and are prepared with required course materials on day one.”

Indeed, this does solve the “problem” of students not having the required materials on day one. About a third of students report going without purchasing the required textbooks for their classes. But to frame this in terms of a lack of student preparation only gets at part of the issue. When students talk about course materials and textbooks, that isn’t the way they tend to frame the problem. The problem for students is cost.

The bundling of textbooks with tuition is supposed to provide students with cost savings. According to a story in The Chronicle of Higher Education this time last year, the discounts may be as much as 20% off of regular e-book prices. A caveat however: e-books haven’t proven to be any less expensive than printed copies, and because there isn’t a market for used e-books, students are always forced to buy the more expensive new versions.

This bundling also promises students better insight into what exactly their overall costs for school will be. There’s an element of convenience for students too, say proponents, as students can more easily use their financial aid at their campus bookstores to make their textbook purchases. Of course, the trade-off here is that students can’t do their own price comparisons, can’t find free and openly licensed alternatives, can’t borrow or share with friends, and can’t use copies that professors often place on reserve in the library.

In some cases, these digital copies are rentals, and the students don’t get to keep the e-books after the semester ends (although students at Indiana University get to keep their digital materials for the duration they’re at the school).

Despite the promises of better licensing deals, more cost savings, more efficiency, and better student preparation during the first week of class, it’s hard to see this re-bundling as good news. As students continue to respond less-than-enthusiastically to digital textbooks, they could now be required to purchase them anyway.

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About Audrey Watters

Audrey Watters is a writer and rabble-rouser. Her work appears in O'Reilly Radar, KQED's MindShift, and Inside Higher Ed, as well as on her own blog Hack Education. For more information, see her profile page.
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5 Responses to Bundling Textbook Costs with Tuition

  1. Peter Hess says:

    This is a good summary of the pros and especially the cons of this development. If textbook inflation gets tied to tuition inflation it certainly seems like a bonanza for the publishers. By all rights, given greatly reduced costs of production and distribution, eTextbooks should be bringing down the cost of textbooks. The fact that that isn’t happening suggests to me that there is something broken with the market, and I don’t see how bundling is going to fix it.

  2. Miles McCrimmon says:

    This development appears to give students and their professors even less choice and control over the selection and use of educational materials, but that’s because the version described here still operates in the three-channel universe of Big Publishing. Authorize and expect colleges and universities to identify and develop high-quality open educational resources, bundle them at a fraction of the cost of a stack of textbooks, make them available on the first day of class, and we’ll be getting somewhere.

  3. Jeff Lorton says:

    Audrey, I agree it is a broken market. Understandably, everyone in the market is trying to find ways to edge out the competition. The eTextbook contract may limit options, but it will not change the fact that textbooks are still preferred by students. We have created a way for students to save more with access to all of the available options and online vendors. Jeff Lorton http://www.campusshift.com [email protected]

  4. Given the cons for students i.e. They can’t shop around, re-sell or in some cases even keep the e-bo0ks for students, and even if they could, students so far don’t seem to prefer e-books (having just tried to use them in an on line course of my own, I can now see why), I think universities and publishers are the biggest benefactors of this re-bundling strategy. Thus I’m surprised there hasn’t been a huge outcry from students and parents at being force fed this particular bundle. And I’m reminded of another article you posted Audrey, which went something like “When is someone going to ask the students what they want?”

  5. Peter Hess says:

    The notion that students don’t like ebooks is getting a lot of currency, and while I can understand why, I think it’s unfortunate. I love reading eBooks.

    One’s perceptions of the eBook experience depend a great deal on the device, the software, and the price, and in all three areas there is still a way to go. I look forward to a time not too far off when things have progressed enough that paper texts are recognized for the dinosaurs I think they are.

    Some specifics:
    – Readability is very important. When my choice was Kindle vs Original iPad, I went with Kindle for readability. When the iPad (3) came out, I looked at the Retina Display and said ‘what’s the big deal’? Then I tried the Kindle app on it and I found the readability improvement to be night and day. Haven’t gone back to the Kindle since.
    – Navigation is important. The iPad with the Kindle app knocks that one out of the park.
    – Graphics are important. iPad (3) is up to snuff there. eInk devices have a way to go yet.
    – Having all your books close to hand, all the time, wherever you are, is huge.
    – Some improvements I hope to see, and that I think would make a big difference in acceptance of etext books: easier highlighting, the ability to make marginal notes, the ability to copy and paste text (for example for inserting quotations into papers).
    – Given what the publishers have shown so far, tackling cost may require a market disrupter to act. Apple tried with a $15 price point, but my hunch is Amazon will do it, even as it takes them deeper into publishing.

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