By Aamina Rehman, Alan Wiggins, Autumm Caines, and Raya Samet (author names are listed alphabetically by first name)
Anyone associated with higher education should be concerned about textbook costs. Students, in particular, have a vested interest in understanding this issue, since they bear the direct costs of decisions regarding requirements for paid resources in a course. Faculty, staff, and administrators care about student success and we are sure that none of them are looking to create expensive barriers for students. Many students look for lower cost alternatives to paid resources which may include visiting the library for material, looking for cheaper online texts, and purchasing used materials. However, at times students are not given such freedom and are subjected to making higher cost purchases – sometimes, ones that they are not able to afford.
We have come together as members of the University of Michigan – Dearborn’s Open Education Committee, which brings together faculty, staff and students, to explore some of the basics of textbook selection, as well as to specifically inform our audience on the automatic textbook billing sales model sometimes known as “First Day” or “Inclusive Access.”
Who chooses your textbook?
Who chooses which textbooks, homework platforms and other required materials that will be used in a course? Typically, decisions regarding course materials (often textbooks but also supplementary materials and, increasingly, homework platforms) are made by individual faculty members. Sometimes, especially in cases of multi-section courses, a department or committee of faculty who teach a particular course make decisions about materials collectively. Because of this, commercial textbook publishers often market directly to faculty. It is not uncommon for a faculty member to get multiple emails and phone calls from sales reps, as well as free copies of textbooks and other promotional materials in the mail, trying to influence their decision. Price is often left out of these marketing efforts entirely.
One alternative to commercial textbooks are Open Educational Resources (OER) which “are learning, teaching and research materials in any format and medium that reside in the public domain or are under copyright that have been released under an open license, that permit no-cost access, re-use, re-purpose, adaptation and redistribution by others.” (Open Educational Resources | Unesco, n.d.)
OERs are a great alternative for students because of their no-cost access and they are great for faculty who are looking to help bring down the cost of college for students but also find resources which they can legally adapt and change to suit their needs. But there are barriers to faculty adoption including the time and energy that it takes to review a new text and redesign your course to align with it. Additionally, there might be financial incentives for faculty who have authored commercial texts to stick with having students purchase materials in which they are getting a kickback. To help incentivise faculty to consider the adoption (or even creation) of OER many schools, including ours, have implemented grants programs to recognize the labor that goes into OER.
What is “First Day” or “Inclusive Access”?
OER, as well as the used textbook market, undercuts the profit margins of commercial publishers as well as textbook retailers. Though they feel the pressures from these losses they have also seen record profits year after year for decades. Inclusiveaccess.org’s information page on “Savings or Spin” shows that since 2001 the cost of textbooks have more than doubled and greatly outpaced the rate of inflation.
In looking for new ways to package their products to capture market share and maximize profit, publishers and bookstores have come up with a sales model in which course material is discounted but where students are automatically charged for digital access to their course materials. Sometimes these costs are added on to student’s tuition and fees automatically and they only have a short window in which to opt-out, which is particularly harmful. In other cases students can opt-in or ask for the service to be added to their bill, which mitigates the harm but does not erase it.
Broadly this model is known as “Inclusive Access” but can go by a variety of branded names depending on the publisher/bookstore. Here at University of Michigan – Dearborn we work with Barnes & Noble so their branding of this model goes by the names “First Day” and “First Day Complete.” These catchy names sound great with their language of inclusion, access, and equity. Some students may even benefit from these models which promise to give all students access to the materials that they need on the first day of class. But there are also numerous pitfalls to this model that can make it not such a great deal for many students and especially for those who are historically marginalized in higher education. These include the fact that this sales model only gives students access to digital rentals of materials which not only forces students into a digital platform and exposes them to increased data collection but also compels them to spend their dollars on materials that will disappear after the term is over. This makes other, often cheaper and longer lasting, methods of obtaining materials less desirable.
Being Realistic and Taking Action
When something seems too good to be true, there is a good chance that it may be. “First Day“ and Inclusive Access is not just coming – it is already here. It is important that all of us: students, faculty, and administrators be realistic about the true impacts of this sales model. A community of stakeholders concerned with the cost of textbooks have joined forces to maintain a website with facts around this sales model at inclusiveaccess.org, where they present the potential downsides of the model by the different constituencies. We would like to survey some of the concerns from the site here.
Students are told by vendors that automatic textbook billing will save them money but these numbers are just a comparison of what they would charge to buy new print material. As such, students may be misled into making cost ineffective decisions – costs that could otherwise be spent on tuition or housing. In fact, many students are unaware of what “First Day” and “Inclusive Access” even is. Without extensive knowledge, such programs sound cost- and student-friendly due to their marketing, when, in reality, they are not always. Further, some courses require students to engage in “Inclusive Access” programs in order to complete homework assignments, quizzes, and the like. Although such programs are advertised as “opt-in” or “opt-out”, consequences will occur if the student decides to opt out – such as incomplete homework and quiz grades. In actuality, then, the students do not have free choice on whether they would like to participate in the program. Moreover, the student population that is assisted by financial aid is adversely affected by such “inclusive” claiming programs. These students in particular need to be mindful of their dollars, and this model takes away other options to obtain materials in favor of automatically adding materials to their bill. (Inclusive Access — What Students Should Know, n.d.)
Faculty are told that automatic textbook billing is more inclusive and equitable for students but as we explored above it is not that simple. Additionally, for faculty there are concerns of academic freedom. Inclusiveaccess.org surfaces research from Bay View Analytics which shows that decisions about Inclusive Access are often made at the administrative level, taking away a decision that has traditionally been made by faculty. (Inclusive Access — What Faculty Should Know, n.d.)
Administrators often make institutional-wide decisions about inclusive textbook billing with good intentions but they will do well to think critically about the impacts of this model before buying into the sales rhetoric. Students are savvy and will likely not appreciate having more affordable choices taken away. Those who choose more affordable options instead of automatic textbook billing may also find themselves locked out of digital homework systems which could impact their ability to do well and administrators could see an overall impact in student success and retention. Additionally, administrators who are wooed by the promises of affordable access should be mindful of the history of price increases by these players and note that many of the contracts allow for unlimited inflation of prices in the future.
Automatic textbook billing can go by a variety of names and though it may be beneficial for well off students who desire brand new materials with no desire to ever retain those materials, it can be much more complicated for students with less privilege. Be skeptical when you hear about automatic textbook billing and for more information check out these resources:
Do ‘inclusive access’ textbook programs save students money? A new site urges everyone to read the fine print. (2021, October 11). The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/do-inclusive-access-textbook-programs-save-student s-money-a-new-site-urges-everyone-to-read-the-fine-print
Inclusive access—Savings or spin? (n.d.). InclusiveAccess.Org. Retrieved November 3, 2022, from https://www.inclusiveaccess.org/facts/savings-or-spin
Inclusive access—What administrators should know. (n.d.). InclusiveAccess.Org. Retrieved November 3, 2022, from https://www.inclusiveaccess.org/administrators
Inclusive access—What faculty should know. (n.d.). InclusiveAccess.Org. Retrieved November 3, 2022, from https://www.inclusiveaccess.org/faculty
Inclusive access—What students should know. (n.d.). InclusiveAccess.Org. Retrieved November 3, 2022, from https://www.inclusiveaccess.org/students
Inclusiveaccess. Org – the facts on inclusive access textbooks. (n.d.). InclusiveAccess.Org. Retrieved November 3, 2022, from https://www.inclusiveaccess.org
Open educational resources | unesco. (n.d.). Retrieved November 3, 2022, from https://www.unesco.org/en/communication-information/open-solutions/open-educationa l-resources
Textbooks are pricey. So students are getting creative. (n.d.). Washington Post. Retrieved November 3, 2022, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/textbooks-keep-getting-pricier-so-students-are-getting-creative/2020/01/17/4e1306b8-30b9-11ea-91fd-82d4e04a3fac_story.html
Valle, G. D. (2019, March 6). The high cost of college textbooks, explained. Vox. https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/3/6/18252322/college-textbooks-cost-expensive pearson-cengage-mcgraw-hill
Vitez, K. (2020, February). Automatic Textbook Billing: And officer students can’t refuse? U.S. PRIG Education Fund.
Note: At the time of publication, the University of Michigan-Dearborn has not yet signed a contract for “First Day” or “First Day Complete,” but direct marketing and solicitation by Barnes & Noble to faculty on campus for such products is already a reality.