Political Science Professor Renford Reese recalls his early years of teaching when a student left his book in class. When Reese saw that the book’s $88 price tag, he was stunned.
“That was pretty expensive in the 1990s,” he says. “I was floored and I was outraged that the textbooks were so expensive, and I felt they were exploiting students.”
Reese began using course packs of printed articles and other materials, and negotiated with publishers to let him distribute copies of specific chapters instead of requiring the purchase of the textbook. He also uses his own books in his classes, which students can get at an affordable price on Amazon.
More than two decades later, students continue to pay a hefty price for books, but Cal Poly Pomona is helping to keep the cost down.
The university’s Affordable Learning Initiative (ALI), which launched in 2012, helped students save $1.8 million in the 2013-14 school year. The effort is an outgrowth of the CSU’s Affordable Learning Solutions program that started in 2010.
CSU students pay more than $1,000 per year for textbooks, according to data from the Chancellor’s Office.
Spurred by the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act of2008, which mandated that colleges and universities provide students with more information to assist them with managing textbook costs, CSU campuses have been working on ways to help students save money.
ALI utilizes a variety of strategies, including the use of e-books, textbook rentals, library reserves and online resources, says Emma Gibson, the University Library’s department chair and head of public services, as well as the chair of the campus’ ALI steering committee.
“It’s about saving money for students, but it’s also making sure we have high-quality materials,” she says.
When new textbooks are selected, the library can check if there is an e-book version. The library also has e-books in its collection and carries databases that contain the full text of articles that are available to students, faculty, and staff to print or download.
In addition, the library is encouraging faculty members to use the CSU’s Multimedia Educational Resources for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT) program, an open educational resource where they can access shared course modules, Gibson says.
The Bronco Bookstore also is doing its part.
“ALI doesn’t really change much what we’ve been doing because we’re always trying to keep books as affordable as we can,” says Suzanne Donnelly, the bookstore’s senior associate director.
The bookstore offers used books, e-books and a rental program to help cut costs.
The average price of textbooks has risen in the last decade, jumping 8 percent above the rate of inflation, but that does not mean students always pay top dollar, Donnelly says.
With rentals, used texts and e-books in the mix, the average price has been flat for the past five years, she says.
Renting textbooks became a national trend in 2009, Donnelly says. Cal Poly Pomona launched its program the same year.
The bookstore also has the textbook buyback option for students. Professors can help students save money by getting their textbook selections in early, Donnelly says. If a textbook will not be used in a class the next quarter, students get turned away at the buyback window, she adds.
As a professor, Reese says he supports the ALI program.
“I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “We always have to think of our students first. We need to empathize and think of how we felt as students.”
Political Science Professor Sandra Emerson says she uses an online textbook that a retired faculty member wrote for her Research Methods for Political Science class. The book, Powermutt, is customized for political science students and can be accessed on Blackboard.
The class also has a traditional textbook, but if students have taken a statistics course, they don’t need to buy the book.
ALI is good, but additional steps could be taken, Emerson says.
Students can’t access the software for her class when off campus because of license restrictions, she says.
“This is not the kind of class where you can just sit in a corner and read a book,” she says. “Students need to practice.”
Many faculty members are frustrated with the content of the books that publishers are providing, so they are turning to journals, web materials, and other scholarly works, she says.
“They are putting together what is better geared to students,” she says.
Peter Tran, a third-year political science major in Emerson’s class, says that he likes using the online materials, but still wants a textbook for most of his classes. He doesn’t mind paying the cost, he says, adding that his constitutional law book cost nearly $200.
“I like the idea of online, but I don’t agree with totally eliminating textbooks,” he says. “It’s convenient to look online if you’re at a computer, but I like to have a physical copy in hand. The challenge would be to get a mixture of both.”
Classmate Tara Kwan said her most expensive textbook was about $90. The second-year political science student says she opts to buy new copies if the cost is not much more than for a used textbook. She has rented textbooks but does not favor it for fear that she’ll forget to return it on time.
She prefers to have a hard copy of the books for classes in her major, but if her professors go to more online resources, she will adjust, she says.
“You adapt to things when things change, and it seems online learning is the future, like it or not,” she says. “Also, online textbooks have the advantage of being cheaper, easier to access, and environmentally friendly.”
Shanthi Srinivas, associate vice president of academic planning, policy, and faculty affairs, says Cal Poly Pomona strives to bring down the cost of textbooks.
In 2013, the university launched an e-textbook pilot program to learn about their effectiveness and impact in the classroom and on student learning. The students were generally happy with the navigation and highlighting features of the e-text and the fact that they did not have to carry a heavy textbook. The study found that some students felt that their older devices did not fully support the e-texts and that they needed an Internet connection to access them. While it was possible to use the e-text offline, the process to do so was not convenient, Srinivas says.
“It’s about presenting options for students,” she says. “We want to make sure the quality is high and there is accessibility.”
When assigning a textbook to buy, faculty members let students know if an online version is available. The issue with e-books is that they do not have a significant price advantage. In many instances, they are still quite expensive, Srinivas says, and prone to volatile price fluctuations.
“The publishers have to bring down the cost of e-texts for it to be a viable option for our students,” she says. “We are very concerned about the cost of textbooks and course materials in general. We are constantly working on affordable solutions for our students that do not compromise quality.”