6 Ways to Lower Course Materials Costs for Students (Ambassador Article in eCampusNews)

When Students Don't Have Their Course Materials, Engagement can Suffer, as can Grades and Outcomes

After decades of rising course materials costs, students are finally feeling some relief. Yet even though spending on course materials is trending downward, textbook affordability continues to weigh heavy on students’ minds.

Average student spending on course materials is the lowest the industry has seen in 24 years, according to NACS, yet some students are still not purchasing all of their required materials. Around one in four students decided not to acquire at least one course material, and NACS reported that students who skipped materials were also more likely to consider dropping out. When students don’t have their course materials, engagement can suffer, as can grades and outcomes.

Additionally, technology costs, including laptops, need to be factored into the equation. Technology is a core component of the education experience, whether students are learning in the classroom, online, or both. Having access to right tools and technologies means easier access to course materials, which can improve convenience, connection, and collaboration for students.

There are a number of steps schools can take to help reduce course materials and technology costs, easing the financial burden students face and improving the likelihood that more students will acquire more of their materials. It’s important for schools to be proactive and educate themselves, their faculty, and their students on the course materials processes specific to their school. Raising awareness of textbook affordability and keeping everyone in the know is important, especially when it comes to alternative formats and delivery models, as well as fully understanding access terms, usage, and fees.

  1. Give faculty full transparency into costs and comparable items so they can make informed decisions. An alarming 37% of post-secondary faculty don’t know the cost of course materials when they select items for their booklists. In a recent NACS webinar about student and faculty perspectives on course materials, about 50% of faculty agreed that textbook affordability is a priority to them and 38% have decided against a course material because of the increasing cost to students. Keeping faculty informed can go a long way to keeping costs down for students. Faculty also need to be made aware of all of their options, including print, digital and OER formats. Not all faculty know what OER is, but awareness about this free option is increasing. Also, when faculty select items that will be used again in a subsequent term, students often benefit by recouping more money for their items through buyback programs.
  2. Offer students a choice in format. When students can choose between new, used, rental, digital, subscription-based, Print-on-Demand and more, they can make the best choice for themselves. Students should be able to compare costs and weigh their own learning preferences, including prioritizing the immediate cost now versus the importance of the item’s longevity. For example, if a student knows they will be done with that item upon conclusion of the course, they can choose a less expensive, less permanent format. If a student wants ongoing access to the item beyond the duration of the course, purchasing that item outright might be the better choice even though it may cost more up front. If students are assigned a digital material, but feel like they learn more effectively from a hard copy, perhaps they want to also buy a print version. Student choice empowers students to make a purchasing decision that aligns with their own needs and goals.
  3. Provide Inclusive Access and Equitable Access programs. These automatic fulfillment, day one access programs provide students with access to print, digital and other materials simply by enrolling.  Students can take advantage of discounted pricing, not to mention improved accessibility and convenience. Since Inclusive Access is tailored to digital and typically is initiated at the course level, make sure faculty know about this option when they select their materials for the term’s booklist. According to NACS, more than half of faculty have now used Inclusive Access in at least one course, up from 21% in 2020 and 12% in 2019. NACS also reports that 39% percent of students obtained materials through Inclusive Access for the 2021-2022 academic year, compared to 33% the year before and 15% in 2018-19. For many institutions, Equitable Access is the preferred model as it takes into account various formats, not just digital, and it can be handled at the school or program level. It offers wider student choice and includes all courses, not just the ones that fit the requirements of an Inclusive Access negotiated deal. Additionally, keep in mind that students must have the option to opt-out of Inclusive and Equitable Access programs, and processes must be in place to make sure the appropriate financial credits are administered.
  4. Consider offering devices as part of your course materials programNACS reports that half of students say they use digital course materials more now than they did before the pandemic, and device programs ensure students have the necessary equipment and connectivity to access these materials. Since students are spending more on technology, one of the best ways to help offset the price of costly devices is to offer them through the school where students can take advantage of the school’s buying power, as well as technical support, device maintenance, connectivity agreements and more. Finding a course materials provider that handles the oversight, inventory and cash outlay for device programs can produce huge benefits too.
  5. Diligently track licenses, usage and fees when it comes to digital materials. On the whole, digital materials can cost less. Education Data Initiative reports that the average eBook is 31.9% less expensive than its hard copy counterpart. That said, if verification controls are not in place, schools often pay for unused digital licenses without realizing it. Additionally, students who use the same digital materials across multiple terms and courses often overpay because usage doesn’t match their assigned access configuration (non-expiring, semester-based and census-based). Understanding the license and duration terms and having the financial controls in place to align usage and fees will help protect a school’s bottom line and a student’s budget.
  6. Do your pricing homework! Make sure you know exactly what goes into the student sell price of each item and where there might be hidden mark-ups. Many schools may not fully understand the real acquisition costs, publisher discounts, and school revenue options, all of which impact the price for students. Also consider the fact that shipping costs for course materials become more affordable and more predictable when multiple items are shipped from a single, reliable source.

One in five students report that the cost of books and materials directly influences their decision on what classes to take. Course selection is one of many sacrifices students are making to save money. Giving students and faculty a choice in course materials, gaining deeper transparency into actual costs and pricing models, and leveraging advancements in technology all can help keep these costs in check.

Students need access to course materials, and accessibility shouldn’t be hindered by cost. When students have their course materials in hand, there is an increased likelihood that they will succeed. They are more prepared, more connected to the content and their peers, more engaged in the curriculum, and more likely to be retained.

Original Publication:

About the Author:
Bruce Schneider, Vice President of Business Engineering, Ambassador Education Solutions
Bruce Schneider serves as Vice President of Business Engineering at Ambassador Education Solutions where he collaborates with schools to improve the student experience at all levels of the course material supply chain.


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