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UNC students weigh affordability of textbooks, access codes in survey

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

As remote learning becomes more common in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, some groups have expressed concern that expensive access codes for online learning materials may pose a barrier for some college students.

On June 8, U.S. PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), released a report on the impacts of textbook prices on college students. The report is based on a national survey conducted in fall 2019 of nearly 4,000 students from 83 institutions, including UNC, and is the second edition following a 2014 report on the same issue. The survey received 121 responses from UNC students.

An access code is a password that lets students behind a paywall to access a digital textbook, homework assignments, tests, quizzes and other materials. Cailyn Nagle, an affordable textbooks campaign director for U.S. PIRG and lead writer of the report said a single access code typically costs around $100.

“If they don’t buy the access code, students are being priced out of access to their homework, their exams, the materials they’ve been assigned and participation in a class they’ve already paid tuition for,” Nagle said. 

Anne Gilliland, the UNC Libraries scholarly communications officer, said access codes don't allow students to resell or pass on learning materials to friends, like they could with traditional textbooks. Because access codes expire, students don’t have long-term access to the content of their learning materials, she said.

However, Gilliland said access codes are sometimes the only option for certain classes and that online options have recently become more popular.

“Certainly, in the last few months there has been a desire to try to find alternatives online, especially last semester when people had to pivot to online resources,” she said.

Sig Sigafose, a rising junior and chapter chairperson of the UNC Chapel Hill branch of NCPIRG, said she has had to purchase an access code every semester she has been at UNC.

“It’s really frustrating because they are extremely expensive,” she said. “Most of the time I’m always trying to look for a cheaper option.”

Although the U.S. PIRG report says the cost of textbooks has increased at three times the rate of inflation and plateaued in the past few years, surveys by Student Watch and Student Monitor have found significant drops in course material spending over the past five years, according to John McKay, the senior vice president of communications at the Association of American Publishers.

Laura Knox, director of affordable solutions at textbook publisher W.W. Norton & Company, also said learning material costs have gone down considerably and that publishers are more committed to providing affordable solutions and alternate delivery models.

“Looking at the numbers and the data, those costs continue to decline year after year, and Inclusive Access and other alternate delivery models are ways that publishers are able to do that,” she said.

Inclusive Access programs allow publishers to work with an institution to provide students with all their required learning materials in a digital format on the first day of class, she said.

“Students do have the opportunity to opt out and find their materials elsewhere, but the convenience of inclusive access is that there’s no guesswork in finding and acquiring the right course materials at an affordable cost,” Knox said. “You know they’re the correct materials you need to succeed in the course and it’s the lowest market price for that material.”

The U.S. PIRG report argues that the most promising potential solution to the issue of textbook affordability is open textbooks. Open textbooks often are available to students for free online and for low cost in print, Nagle said.

Gilliland said open educational resources like open textbooks are a way to avoid additional costs and level the playing field for students from less privileged backgrounds.

“I think some faculty may be hesitant to teach from them because they haven’t done it before,” she said. “If an open textbook doesn’t exist for a class you’re going to teach, it can be pretty time consuming to put one together, but for certain classes I think they are a great option.”

According to the PIRG report, around 58 percent of the UNC students surveyed have skipped buying a textbook or an access code because of the cost. Additionally, 12 percent of UNC students said they’ve skipped meals to afford school materials.

Nagle said U.S. PIRG advocates for transparency surrounding the price of materials, so students can know how much materials will cost before they register for a class. They said U.S. PIRG also encourages faculty to adopt open textbooks and reconsider assigning access codes.

Student spending on course materials has declined in part because of the wide variety of formats publishers have made available, including access codes, inclusive access and digital and physical rental models, McKay said.

“Education is not a one-size-fits-all experience and students, professors and academia all benefit from greater choice,” he said.

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