Do “access included” textbook programs save students money? New site urges everyone to read the fine print

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“Inclusive access,” a textbook sales model touted as a way to ensure that students without funds can afford to buy books, does not always deliver on this promise, according to a leading open access organization. So the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition and its partners have launched a website that they hope will encourage healthy skepticism and further research into the increasingly popular model.

Inclusive access programs incorporate the cost of digital course material into a student’s tuition and fees, and are marketed as a heavily discounted alternative to traditional printed textbooks. More than 950 college campuses have adopted related programs since 2015, when a regulation from the Department of Education allowed institutions to include books and supplies in their tuition or fees.

But advocates for open educational resources like Nicole Allen, director of open education at Sparc, fear colleges – demanding low-cost textbook options – will embrace the model without knowing for sure whether it actually allows their students to ” save money, given the extent of the resources used. – booking and rental options available.

“Right now, inclusive access is largely driven by providers who come to campuses and deliver a program. And it’s backwards, ”Allen said. “We want people to decide for themselves.

The website, plugged in as a single resource, links to a spreadsheet detailing more than 70 contracts between colleges and major book publishers, such as Pearson, McGraw Hill and Cengage. And it includes lists of questions administrators, faculty, and students should ask: What methodology is used to calculate the announced student savings? If Inclusive Access is not working for my students, will I be able to stop using it in my course? If I [a student] unsubscribe, will I still be able to do all of my mandatory work?

These are important questions to address, Allen said, because once institutions “go digital, whatever model we put in place… we’re going to be stuck for a while. It will be difficult to change once these precedents are established.

Sparc, a longtime inclusive access critic, created the site in consultation with partners such as PIRG students, the Association of American Colleges & Universities’ Institute on Open Educational Resources, and Creative Commons.

The devil is in the details

Research and anecdotes circulating online tell various stories about inclusive access – highlighting the idea that unique college populations and the way contracts are crafted could make a difference in the success of the model.

There are promising accounts: A lecturer at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 2017 said Inside higher education the program leveled the playing field, allowing all of its students to access the most up-to-date content from the first day of class. The University of Central Florida, which offers students to join its inclusive access program, says its students saved nearly $ 10 million from spring 2019 through summer 2021. (Note, it doesn’t was not immediately clear what this calculation was based on.)

For time-strapped teachers too, the included access programs might allow them to stick to the textbooks they already use.

“Faculty and students need access to top-notch professional course materials and need the freedom to choose the materials that work best for them,” the Association of American Publishers wrote in a statement. The Chronicle. Inclusive access is “an increasingly popular option because it works on both fronts”.

Advocates of open educational resources – free, open-licensed material that anyone can download, edit, and customize – say the high discount percentages (sometimes as high as 80 percent) that sellers cheat, however, because they are often calculated based on what a new printed edition of a manual would cost. In fact, a 2016 survey showed that the majority of students buy or rent used textbooks. Others go to the library for a reserved copy, or share with friends.

Materials offered through Inclusive Access also typically disappear from a student’s account at the end of the semester, meaning that students cannot resell them.

Allen is also wary that contracts between colleges and vendors often include percentage-based discounts instead of price caps. While research groups like Student Watch and Student Monitor report that average student spending on college textbooks has declined in recent years, she fears this provision leaves colleges vulnerable to “runaway fees” in an industry that saw a 1,041 percent increase in textbook costs between 1977 and 2015.

Central Washington University’s contract with Cengage, for example, gives it a 25% discount off the “current digital list price for e-book titles.” The contract separately states that Cengage reserves the right to terminate the agreement if the college does not get at least 85% of the students enrolled in the applicable courses to pay for the program.

Particularly if there are minimum usage rates like this, another concern is whether colleges allow students to opt out easily (legally they have to offer this option). Texas A&M University’s inclusive access program in San Antonio was halted earlier this year in part because “there was a shock when the students saw their bills, and they didn’t like the fact. that they were paying for something they didn’t choose. to, ”the student newspaper reported.

A spokesperson for Cengage stressed that federal law requires that educational materials offered under inclusive access programs be “at rates below competitive market rates.” She also argued that digital products provide a better learning experience than a printed book, with “search, highlight and bookmark capabilities as well as read aloud functionality.”

With the website launch, Allen said she hopes more people will come to the table to have frank conversations about “the challenges. [with these programs] new arrivals on campus, and what higher education can do to navigate them. Sparc and its partners also plan to add additional material, such as academic case studies highlighting where inclusive access worked and didn’t, and why.

“This is just the start,” she said.


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