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Would a new program for textbook access codes really help UNC students?

Pearson textbook prices
A stack of textbooks sits outside of UNC Student Stores on Tuesday, April 2, 2019.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that NCPIRG met with representatives from the bookstore Monday to discuss what the store plans to do and how the program might impact UNC. The Undergraduate Student Government Affordability Committee met with these representatives. Additionally, the Inclusive Access model would not function as an automatic billing system at UNC as the University has selected an opt-in program. The article also incorrectly stated that it is Pearson's Inclusive Access Model. The model is a combination of several top publishers. 

In light of attempts to have UNC Student Stores adopt an Inclusive Access model for access codes and textbook purchases, some students and faculty have made it known that they don’t welcome the program’s potential implementation.

Inclusive Access is a distribution model where top publishers can "work with an institution to provide all of the content in a digital format, on or before the first day of class, at the best price in the market,” said Tom Malek, vice president and head of Channel Partnerships, Higher Education North America at Pearson Education.

The model functions as an automatic billing system. However, UNC students will be required to approve any charges because UNC has selected an opt-in program.

However, the UNC chapter of the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group has been vocal about its disapproval of Pearson’s program. Junior Nick Sengstaken, the vice chairperson of UNC’s NCPIRG chapter and co-chairperson of the Undergraduate Student Government’s Affordability Committee, said the group believes adopting the new model would be problematic for both students and professors who deserve a say in the decision-making process.

“We think the student body and the faculty deserve a chance to weigh in on this because it’s going to have such a big impact on their education and their ability to teach,” Sengstaken said.

Sengstaken said he thinks that the program would be problematic for low-income students who would have a harder time employing cost-saving methods, like renting or selling used books. He said the model would increase economic inequity in accessing materials, and the lessened economic flexibility could also hurt students academically.

“I, like many other students, am putting myself through college and can’t afford the exorbitant amounts charged for access codes, especially in addition to other textbooks,” first-year Emily Sallade said in an NCPIRG survey. “I rely on used and rental books, and the access code programs are draining my bank account quickly.”

Professors would also be impacted, as they would be restricted to using mostly Pearson textbooks, Sengstaken said, which would limit their ability to use Open Educational Resources, or peer-reviewed materials that are free for students and faculty to use.

But Malek said there are a number of publishers that are included in the program, and professors have no obligation to use Pearson materials. 

The NCPIRG's College Affordability Campaign is “working to relieve some of the burden of student debt by making textbooks free,” according its website. The campaign is working with UNC Libraries to get professors to switch over to OER materials, but the Pearson model could be a barrier to their goal.

Sengstaken said he thinks that, while a small portion of students could be benefitted by this model, it isn’t wise to settle for this program.

“It would not be in our best interest to use this, to take the first proposal and run with it,” Sengstaken said. “Yes, there will be savings here, but there are far greater savings that we will see if we actually look into things like open textbooks, if we simply ask professors to recognize the cost that students are faced with and then look into more affordable resources.”

Other efforts have also been made to speak out against the issue. Katie Craig, a campus organizer at NCPIRG, said the organization has gathered close to 900 petitions against access codes and has had over 330 professors sign a textbook affordability pledge.

“It’s also kind of bringing all of these things together, like the resolution, the petitions, potentially some statements from librarians, and making sure that that’s actually presented in talking to people in the bookstore and on that committee that are making these decisions, so that if they decide to do it, they know that there’s a lot of people who have already spoken out against it," Craig said.

Undergraduate Student Government’s Affordability Committeemet with representatives from the bookstore Monday to discuss what the store plans to do and how the program might impact UNC. 

Sengstaken said NCPIRG praises Student Stores for holding its ground and maintaining their direct delivery system, which does not promote Pearson’s interests, and that NCPIRG is calling on the store to not waver as Pearson attempts to have them take on the program.

In the event that the store shifts to Pearson’s Inclusive Access model, Sengstaken said it’s important that students get adequate information about Pearson’s goals.

“Overall, we just want to make sure that whatever contract is signed between Pearson and our bookstore is available to individuals in the Student Government, so we can actually go through that and make sure that it represents students’ interests,” he said.

Sengstaken said he would advise the University to look at all of the available resources and not rely on the company whose price hikes are part of the problem.

“We should be trying to move the course material selection process to one that increases accessibility and affordability rather than one that just strengthens these paywalls, which is exactly what Pearson’s efforts are doing,” Sengstaken said.

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On March 26, the Undergraduate Senate passed a resolution against inclusive access codes, stating that the University should not adopt the program because of the inequity it would cause and the impact that it would have on the secondary textbook market. It was accompanied by a paper, detailing some of the issues the Affordability Committee saw with the proposed systems.

Director of Media and Communities at Pearson, Scott Overland, and Malek refuted some of the claims made in the resolution, saying that it is a multi-publisher program that would not decrease competition in the textbook market and that it is possible to opt in or out, depending on how an individual university decides to manage the program.

The program, Malek said, is committed to providing the best prices possible, but if a student can find a used copy or an older edition that is selling for cheaper, then they can easily opt out of the program.

“I know for a fact, that in none of our programs are students being forced to do anything,” Malek said. “You're allowed to either opt into it, and in that case, you wouldn't have access to the content until you expressly opt in, or you have access to the content until you opt out.”

The resolution also included the worry that price transparency for students would decline because the information they would be given could be untimely or misleading, but Overland assured that there would be transparent, accurate pricing.

Malek highlighted some of the benefits the system could provide, including the ease of having digital materials, being able to access these materials through a school’s learning management system and the ability to keep the e-books forever. He said that student savings for Indiana University Bloomington, which has used this program for years, have been over $11 million.

“We think that these programs are the future and that, especially in the digital world, with all of the services that we're providing to institutions and to faculty and to students, that this is actually a really good deal,” Malek said.