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Survey: Textbook Costs Having Greater Impact On Students During Pandemic

E-learning online education or internet  encyclopedia concept. Open laptop and book compilation in a classroom.
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The U.S. Public Interest Research Group surveyed more than 5,000 students at over 80 colleges and universities nationwide last fall.

An affordable textbook campaign surveyed more than 5,000 students and showed the cost of textbooks is skyrocketing due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Many students have struggled with the cost of textbooks for years. For economically vulnerable students, the COVID-19 pandemic has made matters much worse.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) surveyed more than 5,000 students at 82 colleges and universities across the nation. They talked about their findings during a webinar Friday.

“Lack of competition in the textbook marketplace and the lack of choice students have in their purchasing decisions has driven the cost of textbooks sky high,” said Affordable Textbooks Campaign Director Cailyn Nagle. “Although that steep climb has leveled off over the past few years, students continue to struggle to afford their materials.”

While textbooks have been one of the highest out-of-pocket costs for students for several years, there’s a new problem: access codes. Those offer temporary access to homework assignments, course readings, quizzes, and tests, but they’re hidden behind a paywall.

Unlike a used textbook, access codes deny students cheaper options and make their ability to pass a class reliant on their finances.

“Choosing to skip buying an access code carries a higher risk than skipping buying a textbook. Access codes contain online homework and other required assignments, meaning that without it, students are accepting an automatic cut to their grade in that course,” said Nagle.

Students’ inability to pay for access codes and textbooks sometimes accompanied other financial needs.

Perhaps one of the most chilling findings of the survey was that 82% of the students polled who had experienced hunger during the pandemic were also unable to afford coursework materials. As a result, they developed a fear of not being able to be successful in their classes.

The students from 82 campuses in 19 states and the District of Columbia were surveyed in September 2020. Ten of the campuses were private, 12 were community colleges.

Other key findings revealed that:

  • 65 percent of students skipped a textbook purchase.
  • 21 percent skipped buying an access code purchase.
  • COVID-19 impacted 79% in some way that hurt their ability to meet their basic needs: 20% had lost a job, and were significantly more likely to skip textbook or access code purchases than students who did not lose jobs.
  • One in 10 students reported that they did not have reliable internet access. Those students were nine percent more likely to skip buying access codes and eight percent more likely to fail a course because of expensive materials than the general student population.
  • One in 10 students reported skipping meals to cut costs during the pandemic; 38% of these students skipped buying access codes -- nearly twice the rate of their peers. To make matters worse, this is a conservative estimate of students who are food insecure. “There are thousands of students who cannot choose to prioritize either health or academic success -- they have been priced out of both,” said Nagle.

However, some colleges are taking action.

Scott Hubbard is a math professor at Los Medanos College in Pittsburgh, CA. He said his school is lowering the financial barriers and providing students with access to the materials from the start of class. ‘

As a result, they'll have a better chance at succeeding.

“Courses run with zero cost textbooks result in higher success rates, higher completion rates, (and) better grades for the students,” Hubbard said.

He adds that the system is rigged against the poor.

“I don't want that to happen anymore, and that's why I work in a community college system and why I want to support students as they grow and succeed and learn and be able to jump into a great career,” Hubbard said.

“So let's continue to move forward to get rid of the cost of textbooks so they can succeed better and not have to make choices between food or transportation or any of their other bills. Instead, they can just focus on their classes.”

Nagle said a few things could help with the textbook and access code affordability issues:

  • First, colleges and universities should invest in open educational resources, grants or stipend programs, departmental or college-wide initiatives and professional development programs. Setting aside funds for these programs would make it easier for faculty to make the switch from commercial materials to free open ones.
  • Secondly, internet infrastructure across the country needs to be improved. The pandemic has shown that the internet is no longer a luxury, but a vital resource.
  • Finally, address the gap in students' basic needs. “Students should not have to struggle with hunger or homelessness on top of all the other stressors in life as a college student,” said Nagle, who suggested colleges should consider starting initiatives like food pantries and emergency grant programs.

“Considering the scale of the student debt crisis and the long term upward trend of tuition costs, this situation is more than a shame,” said Nagle. “It's an urgent problem colleges and universities must solve if they want to improve student success and help students graduate.”

Leali Shalabi is a WUSF/ USF Zimmerman School digital news intern for the spring of 2021.
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