March 27, 2024

At the start of the semester, students historically have faced a difficult decision in buying textbooks. For over a century, prices of course materials increased year over year, with seemingly no solution to resolve this trend – until recently. Since 2016, the trend has reversed, and students have seen savings of up to 60 percent year-over-year on their course materials. A welcome development among institutions, faculty, and students alike, but a current proposal from the Department of Education may change all of that.

In 2016, the Department of Education finalized new rules related to Cash Management provisions of Title IV of the Higher Education Act. As part of these rules, the Department made adjustments to allow institutions to enter into non-exclusive agreements with publishers to provide students course materials by charging their tuition and fees ledger, if three requirements are met:

  1. Below Market Value. The course materials provided must be priced below market value to qualify under the regulations, allowing students to save money.
  2. First Day Access. Institutions must provide students with access to their materials by the seventh day of the payment period, to improve student success through more timely delivery of course content.
  3. Opt-Out Mechanism. Institutions must provide a method for students to opt-out of this program, allowing for student choice.

Once finalized, these regulations allowed for new, innovative models of providing course materials in a timely manner to students, at more affordable prices – typically referred to as access programs.

What is Inclusive Access?

Inclusive Access (IA) Programs involve such partnerships between educational institutions and publishers, where, leveraging economies of scale, institutions can negotiate bulk purchasing agreements to secure lower prices for students compared to traditional retail prices. Currently, nearly 1,900 institutions utilize such programs, including many community colleges.

The Benefits:

  1. Affordability for All: IA programs prioritize affordability, ensuring all students have access to required course materials without breaking the bank. By negotiating discounted rates for materials due to purchasing in bulk, these programs contribute to the overall reduction of the financial burden on students.
  2. Day-One Access: One of the significant advantages of IA is it provides students with immediate access to course materials on the first day of class. This eliminates the delays associated with waiting for financial aid disbursements or searching for more affordable options, allowing students to fully engage with their coursework from the outset. Studies show improved outcomes for students participating in IA programs, particularly students of color and those who are low-income.[1]
  3. Seamless Integration with Curriculum: IA programs integrate seamlessly with course curricula. Faculty members work closely with publishers to tailor materials to their specific instructional needs, ensuring students receive relevant and up-to-date content aligned with the course objectives.

Proposed Regulations to End Inclusive Access

Despite these positive benefits for students, in the recent Program Integrity and Institutional Quality Negotiated Rulemaking (neg reg), the Department of Education proposed to severely alter the existing regulations that allow for successful IA programs and instead create an opt-in model. According to the Department, IA opt-out processes at some institutions are too burdensome, and there is a lack of transparency related to the prices negotiated for materials used in IA programs.

Negotiators offered language to address these concerns while still retaining an opt-out model, but the Department rejected those proposals and further restricted an institution’s ability to include such materials in tuition and fees without student or parent authorization in advance. The opt-in language proposed by the Department would require undue burdens on institutions and education material providers, which would likely lead to the end of many successful IA programs that have saved students millions of dollars annually. To be clear, it is the opt-out model that allows for bulk purchasing and below market pricing. All institutional negotiators rejected the Department’s opt-in proposal. Ultimately, consensus was not reached on any topic under Cash Management, so the Department is likely to draft regulations similar to its proposal in the final session. We should see those draft regulations in the coming months.

IA programs represent a significant step forward in the quest for both college affordability and student success at community colleges, which is why ACCT weighed in during the negotiated rulemaking expressing support for preserving IA models. By embracing access programs, institutions can empower students with the resources they need to succeed while fostering a learning environment that prioritizes inclusivity and equal access to education. No matter their financial situation, students are able to access their course materials with IA. As access programs continue to evolve, community colleges stand poised to lead the way in making quality education financially accessible for all. However, overburdensome regulations from the Department of Education could eliminate these benefits for students. If your campus will be impacted, please request a meeting with Department of Education officials to demonstrate to express the importance of access programs to institutions, faculty, and students before the proposed rule is released this year.

[1]Moore, M. (2022b). Equitable access: A participant v. non-participant course completion rate analysis from 2-y institutions.

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