HEOA: Triumph of the Alternative

If you’re a college student or the parent of one who pays for her books, here’s a reason to celebrate with fireworks a little early: Today marks the day that the Higher Education Equal Opportunity Act goes into effect. While the federal legislation covers a range of issues associated with the costs of post secondary education, what’s particularly noteworthy is the requirement that higher ed. institutions of all kinds are required to publish course book lists (including the ISBNs) in their course catalogs and registration in order to help students and parents shop around for the best purchasing options.

Non-compliance puts in jeopardy federal funding of any type the school or its students receive, and so these institutions have scrambled right up until today’s deadline to meet the requirements. (Schools that we work with are already in compliance because our service includes an integrated course catalog and book list with all the required information).

While this important legislation is a significant boon to students and parents, one ought also to view it as a reflection on how much the textbook industry has changed recently because of the internet.

Online marketplaces are flourishing, the pool of used books for sale or rent online is expanding, students are saving vast sums of money, and innovative alternative textbook companies are rapidly emerging that significantly challenge the old way of doing business.

These changes started years ago and have been catalyzed by a weak economy. With about a third of students not buying books because of cost, with the cost of textbook rising for more than a decade at about twice the rate of inflation, with greater numbers of students—especially those seeking second careers—struggling to finance an education, the pressure has been building for some time. And, aided by enterprising online companies, students have taken matters into their own hands—they, and not the traditional vendors, have been driving the textbook marketplace.

And so when we think of HEOA we should really view it, as much as anything, as the triumph of alternative ways of accessing course materials—alternatives that, as such, reduce costs, make education more affordable, and facilitate pedagogy by helping to ensure that students are able to come to class with the required materials. The law is meaningful, important, therefore, because the old textbook model is broken and is quickly being replaced. Indeed, if the successes of the alternative were not so impressive, there would be little point to the law.

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