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UNC student organization works to address textbook affordability


Junior Katelynn Gilbert, President of non-partisan activist group NCPIRG, poses for a portrait on Sept. 1. The NCPIRG speaks on their plans to advocate for a new ConnectCarolina feature that shows the cost of course materials before registration.

The start of any semester at UNC is often hampered by one thing: the relentless expense of textbooks. UNC's chapter of The North Carolina Public Interest Research Group (NCPIRG), a nonpartisan student activist group, is working to decrease this financial burden on students.

Katie Craig, state director for NCPIRG,  said that their textbook affordability campaign has been around since the establishment of the campus chapter, but has gained some recent momentum.

The current work on this campaign is carried over from last academic year. NCPIRG also previously worked on campaigns concerning voter registration, single-use plastic and hunger and homelessness.

Katelynn Gilbert, the student president of NCPIRG and primary lead on the textbook affordability campaign, said the organization has been tackling one large campaign goal per academic term.

In the spring, NCPIRG's campaign focused on getting teachers to sign a textbook affordability statement of support. When signing this digital document, professors agree to consider, research and offer affordable materials when designing their courses. There are now around 300 signatories, Gilbert said. 

Over the summer, NCPIRG concentrated on encouraging all professors to employ a newly added textbook price marker tool on ConnectCarolina that allows them to note the costs of textbooks and materials for their courses. 

This feature was added for spring course registration along with other features detailing modes of instruction and other course information. 

“The use of this feature is up to the discretion of each professor," UNC Media Relations Manager Pace Sagester said in an email statement. "Students with questions regarding a course are encouraged to contact their professor."

Because professors may not be aware of the textbook price marker tool or how to navigate it, NCPIRG plans to educate them on how to update their course information to include the tool. 

This NCPIRG is also focused on educating students on how to get around textbook costs by using open educational resources (OER). 

OER are textbooks and other educational resources that are under an open license and available for free, digital or otherwise. Students can often find alternatives for expensive textbooks if they know where to look, Gilbert said. 

Linda Green, professor of mathematics, said she currently uses OERs and an affordable online homework platform called "edfinity" for single section courses she teaches. However, for multi-section classes like calculus, she has less agency over the course materials used. 

She said the issue of textbook affordability is informally discussed in her department and across other qualitative studies departments. She thinks department-wide change on affordability can happen — but the main barrier is inertia. 

“I don't see that there's a need for any funding or anything, but you know, you have to make some effort to switch, to learn the system, to switch textbooks,” Green said.  

NCPIRG is currently in conversation with Student Stores and Barnes & Noble regarding BNC First Day Complete, an all-inclusive access model for students' course materials. 

“We are basically just talking to Barnes & Noble and the bookstore, about what that program is, and if it would be beneficial, overall to our University,” Gilbert said. “We are kind of just weighing the pros and cons before we do anything.”

Craig said in an email that they also must consider that the all inclusive payment plan is opt-out rather than opt-in, so some students may be unknowingly billed automatically at the start of each semester. Students are also charged by the number of credits they are taking, which means that they may pay for courses that do not actually require materials.

“The best way to save students money and ensure that students have access to their materials on the first day of class, is actually to use easily affordable and accessible materials like open textbooks, not to automatically bill students for textbooks, no matter what way they slice it,” said Craig.

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