The Path to Course Materials Affordability

Campus Strategies to Lower Costs for Students

For many American families, the high cost of a college education is a major burden. According to the College Board, average costs have doubled over the past 20 years (Trends in College Pricing 2019). For many students – particularly first-generation, low-income students – high costs pose a significant obstacle to degree completion.

Among the many costs of higher education are those associated with textbooks and other course materials. It is no secret that these costs can be considerable. However, there is good news. Average annual spending on higher education course materials by community college students has decreased 40 percent over the past 10 years. During the 2018-19 academic year, community college students spent an average of $446 course materials. That’s down from $553 the previous academic year, and a decrease from $740 in the past decade, according to the Student Watch™: Attitudes and Behaviors toward Course Materials: 2018-2019 Report, the National Association of College Stores’ (NACS) annual survey of college students.

The decrease in students’ spending on course materials is the result of several new affordability solutions such as rental programs; digital delivery; online price comparison marketplaces for students similar to 3rd party marketplaces found on Amazon; price match guarantees; and discovery tools for faculty to find lower-cost alternatives such as open educational resources in digital and print formats. These solutions are the result of careful planning by campus stakeholders. Community college trustees can play a key role in these efforts by fostering and supporting strategies that address student engagement, retention, accessibility, and course materials affordability. The process begins with teamwork.

Step One – Building a Collaborative Team to develop, implement, and champion the strategy. Major stakeholders should include representatives from the university library, student government, the faculty, the administration, and the college store. Many teams also include campus technologists and advocates for open educational resources.

The role of faculty cannot be underestimated. According to research released this month by my association, faculty members overwhelmingly select materials for at least one of their courses. However, the number one challenge keeping college faculty from playing a larger role in lowering the cost of course materials and participating inaffordability initiatives is not knowing where to start or what to do, according to Faculty Watch™ 2018-19 Academic Year: Attitudes & Behaviors toward Course Materials (NACS).

Step Two – Set Goals and Objectives. With course materials affordability as the target outcome, the team should develop clear goals and objectives. For example:

· Goal 1: Better serve students through increased engagement, achievement, and retention, with savings and access to high-quality materials.

· Goal 2: Enhance the faculty’s role in the selection and adoption of materials with timely processes to improve submission of course materials adoption, improved course sequencing, and better integration with learning management systems.

· Goal 3: Turn the campus store into a more effective business service within the college community with greater customer service and facilitation of campus-based transactions regardless of source of funding.

Step Three – Elements of a Campus Course Materials Affordability Strategy.

The team should consider affordability solutions, including:

· Store or academic department planning for materials. Textbook requisitions should be submitted to the college store as early as possible to allow stores to source multiple formats and platforms at the most affordable prices.

· First-Day Access Program (also called inclusive access). A collaborative program implemented by a campus store, faculty, and publishers to provide participating students access to all required materials on the first day of class and at a reduced cost.

· Rental options, online marketplace price comparison tools for students, price guarantees, custom course packs, and choices of new and used materials.

· Course reserves to make textbooks and digital materials available from the university library at no additional cost to students.

· Open educational resources are digital, openly licensed materials that are free for students to access (print formats are usually available at a low cost).

· Stipends, scholarships, and funding supports to help students with their purchases of course materials.

Step Four – Building Awareness of the affordability strategy is critically important. The campus team must develop communications and marketing strategies to reach students, faculty, and institutional services.

Once a team has its goals, course material elements, awareness building strategy, and timelines in place, it is set to launch its campus affordability strategy. Along the way, team members should recognize that a successful strategy is never static. It must be evaluated, refreshed with new elements, and given the time to grow and succeed.

To help foster and facilitate the planning process, the National Association of College Stores organizes the annual Textbook Affordability Conference (TAC). TAC is the ideal place for a campus team to begin or refine the development of a campus-wide course materials strategy. This year’s conference is scheduled for April 26-28 at San Diego State University.Visit TAC 2020 for more information regarding speakers, registration, and hotel information. Early-bird registration pricing is available through February 28.

Richard Hershman is the Vice President of Government Relations for the National Association of College Stores. He can be reached at

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