Biden's attack on textbook affordability is unwarranted


College is expensive already, but the price tag is often even higher than students anticipate. It’s not just tuition and fees, but also housing, transportation, and other expenses that come along with the experience.

As a first-generation college student, I have found the total price tag of a degree to be prohibitive. I am also an immigrant paying high non-resident tuition, so every effort to lower costs gets me one step closer to completing my degree. 

Before my first day on campus, I worried about how I would afford the hidden costs of school, especially the books and materials associated with my coursework. I know how pricey textbooks can be — just this semester, I paid over $200 for a single course. Frankly, there have been times I have skipped buying books altogether because of cost, even though I knew it could hurt my grades. Some of my peers do the same.

Fortunately, this isn’t true of every course I have taken. About half the courses at Long Beach State University now participate in an affordable access program that automatically delivers course materials to students at the beginning of the term, and at a significantly reduced price. My financial aid package automatically covers the cost of these books, and I have the chance to shop around to make sure I’m getting the best price before being charged.

My university recently announced it will extend the affordable access program campus-wide in fall 2024, covering every required course material in every course for every student. The all-inclusive course materials charge will be assessed in the summer, and all students have until the third week of the fall semester to opt out of the program if it doesn’t make sense for them.

But even though access programs help remove major financial obstacles for students, they have now become the subject of a proposed Department of Education rule that seeks to ban colleges from offering them. This proposed rule would leave students on the hook for higher textbook costs and make it even more difficult to afford books.

Ten years ago, textbook prices hit an all-time high and students were paying up to $1,200 for all their materials. Course materials were outpacing nearly every other college student expense. But the Obama-Biden Administration helped solve a major problem by allowing higher education institutions to include course materials costs with tuition, fees, and student charges, as long as the materials were offered at a lower price than a student could find on the traditional retail market.

This meant that publishers could offer bulk discounts directly to institutions and their students through new affordable access programs, which have since helped bring down course materials costs by an astounding 57 percent in less than a decade.

You can think of affordable access programs like risk-based insurance; by bundling students’ course materials, colleges are able to deliver student materials at significant publisher discounts. This can add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars in savings over the course of a student’s academic career.

In addition to lower prices, students no longer have to spend weeks or months sourcing cheaper materials and risk falling behind in class. When students have the materials they need on or before the first day of class, they perform better. In fact, 83 percent of students believe that access programs had a positive effect on their academic success. Research also shows that access programs result in substantial increases in course completion rates, especially among Black students (up 21 percent) and students over the age of 25 (up 6 percent).

Altogether, the combination of cost savings, academic impact, and convenience has generated strong student support for access programs. A survey of more than 100 campuses with access programs confirmed that an overwhelming majority of students (91 percent) found it convenient to have their course materials bundled by their school, and 86 percent said the program made them better prepared for class.

It’s no surprise that our student Senate passed a formal resolution in support of access programs in November 2023.

The Department of Education’s proposed change would ultimately leave more students on the hook for high textbook prices by making access models unworkable for schools. The department must not roll back the tremendous progress made on course materials affordability and all the academic outcomes that stem from it. The stakes are too high to get this issue wrong.

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The Biden administration’s goal to make higher education more attainable and affordable for all is admirable, but the focus on restricting textbook access programs is misdirected and will likely result in higher costs for students.

We don’t want to go back to a time when materials were at record prices and there were essentially two classes of students: those who could afford their textbooks at any cost, and those on financial aid who cannot.

Mitali Jain is a senior at Long Beach State University, where she serves as student president.

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