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Affordable Textbooks

Posted by on Friday, February 2, 2018 in News.

One of the concerns that every college student has, regardless of where they are enrolled, is the cost of textbooks. Like every campus, faculty and students at Vanderbilt are always looking for solutions. It is best if students have access to the most recent editions of books being utilized in a classroom, but that value must be offset with making sure that every student has affordable access to books. Given that a number of partial solutions exist in the area of digital studies, it is a question to which I give a good deal of thought.

The reason for the high prices of textbooks is, of course, overdetermined. In part, textbook companies are out to make a profit, but they have a number of forces cutting into their traditional profit margins, most notably the used textbook and rental market. While there is little textbook publishers can do to combat the rental market, they can encourage the publication of new editions of textbooks every couple of years. Although there is some justification for new textbooks in some areas of study (if a field of study changes rapidly or if examples must be updated), it seems clear that one major motivating factor is to encourage the purchase of new, rather than used, textbooks. In this way, publishers assure themselves of a new rush of purchases every couple of years.

Faculty and students pursue a number of ways (both traditional and creative) of fighting textbook prices on a general and individual level. Faculty have placed textbooks on reserve for students, and encouraged students to share (and students have done this on their own). Faculty sometimes opt to allow students to purchase one of many different editions of a textbook, giving the student wider latitude to find cheaper versions of the text through online sources.

Another route that some faculty have begun to pursue is open source textbooks available through the Open Textbook Library, for example. As you will see if you follow the link, the open textbooks found here have been published and licensed to be freely used, adapted and distributed. The books are authored by faculty from a number of different universities, and each book has been reviewed by other, third party faculty members who are experts in the field of study. While students can link to read digital versions of the texts, they can also order print copies for a nominal fee (e.g., $15-20). This is a remarkably open and efficient way for faculty to keep textbook prices down while having trustworthy texts. That said, at Vanderbilt thus far, very few faculty have adopted this path. A short study revealed that Vanderbilt faculty often still feel unsure of assigning a book without the imprint of a major publisher acting as something of a credential.

Another route that we are currently exploring is one being offered by some book publishers. Here, publishers would make all the textbooks being used at Vanderbilt available for students to purchase online at a discounted price. The route is simple: a student signs up for a class, and when they first log in, they are told they have the option to take the digital copy of the book online or purchase their hard copy at the bookstore (or elsewhere). One important consideration is how to include scholarship funding in the purchasing process. This model is being piloted in summer 2018 and will be implemented in the fall if it is successful.

All in all, while this is certainly not one of the most provocative digital issues with which I deal, it is one of the small ways we are all (faculty, students, staff, publishers) working together to help pursue the academic mission.