The average American undergraduate spends $1,240 a year on textbooks and other course materials. Students at public two-year universities spend more on average than students at private four-year universities, meaning that those with fewer resources to begin with are the hardest hit by spending. In 2020, 25% of students surveyed said they worked overtime and 11% said they skipped meals to afford textbooks.
Not so long ago, students could ease the burden of textbook costs by buying them used or, more recently, by finding free PDF versions online. When a single textbook can cost hundreds of dollars, finding creative ways to reduce textbook costs has been a financial necessity for students living in a country where total student loan debt is $1.75 trillion and keep on going.
With the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating our evolution toward increasingly online education, hardcover texts are becoming relics of the past. You might expect this trend to actually help solve the problem, but instead it has the opposite effect. As education becomes increasingly digitized, classrooms are not just being moved to Zoom or Blackboard, but rather entire programs are being outsourced to private companies.
Companies like McGraw Hill, Macmillan Higher Education, Pearson and Cengage all deliver the biggest buzzwords in sleek administrative language – offering, for example, vague and ominous products like “fully integrated, responsive and digital course solutions “. They don’t just offer e-books, but lesson plans, assignments, quizzes, videos, tests, exams, auto-grading, and more (and more!).
And they find even more creative ways to secure their digital intellectual property and get full price from students. The already not-so-peaceful days of looking for over-highlighted second-hand manuals and free PDFs when possible are almost over.
As federal and state governments continue to cut funding for education and ever-increasing percentages of college and university budgets are spent on “administrative” costs, the idea of streamlining and outsourcing education programs course at private companies becomes an attractive option.
For one thing, it’s yet another way to eliminate human agency — and with it, skilled labor — from the school financial equation. Why pay professors, adjuncts, or graduate students to develop syllabi and course materials or spend time grading when you could instead outsource that work to a private company, which can easily generate all that material and replace all those hours of work and their attendant costs with a simple algorithm?
On the other hand, it streamlines labor and materials across the college and university system, allowing them to be more easily run like businesses, with simple and predictable ways to calculate risks, benefits, and results of certain classes. What works and what doesn’t becomes a matter of algorithmically generated prediction – and any associated risks are no longer the responsibility of the university but rather opportunities for innovation in the private sphere.
It goes without saying that these companies specializing in complementary educational materials reap colossal profits. While the impact of COVID-19 initially caused a slight drop in sales for publishers’ higher education divisions, these companies’ rapid shift to integrated online media has allowed them to rebound easily – Pearson, per example, saw 32% growth in the third quarter of 2020, and Cengage saw 40% year-over-year growth in “e-skills revenue.”
As schools increasingly rely on the services of these companies, buying used textbooks or using free PDFs is no longer an option, because you’re no longer buying just one textbook, you’re buying a whole “learning system”. And when your assignments, quizzes and tests (i.e. your grades) are all linked to this system, you have to buy it, regardless of the price quoted by the company.
This new system has massive financial consequences for students.
Take, for example, Brunner & Suddarth Medical-Surgical Nursing Handbook (14th edition). A brand new version of the book is $172 at Wolters Kluwer. A used version of the same edition costs around $40, and any enterprising student can find a PDF online for free.
But the text’s “digital course solution,” offered by publisher Wolters Kluwer Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, costs $238 (I should know, I had to buy it). If a student takes five courses, that’s over $1,000 for a single semester. And with a mandatory move to outsourced online materials, that $1,000 is non-negotiable. And the kicker? The link to access these materials, including the textbook you’re paying for, apparently “expires” in a few months, so you can’t even keep the book – or sell it so it can be useful to another student.
This scam has students across the country wondering, Why do we pay tuition, exactly? We apparently pay money to go to school and get an education, but that education is now outsourced to a company that has nothing to do with the school itself. And the tuition money that should be spent on our education is obviously not going to spend on these e-learning materials, since we also have to pay for those out of pocket.
Paying money to go to public university is already a scandal, but paying Additional thousands of dollars to a private company for “digital course solutions” is an atrocity. School should be free, and so should the materials you need to attend.