Lower the Cost of College Operations or Else: Ideas on Preparing for Digital Textbook Delivery

The higher education conference season is in full effect. I attended an ed tech conference called UBTech held by University Business magazine earlier this month in Orlando, Florida. This was my first time attending UBTech, having formerly mainly focused on the CampusTech conference. UBTech had a good mix of college and university chief technology officers, chief information officers, chief financial officers, and similar roles. It also attracted ed tech companies, textbook publishers, bookstore services providers, and other organizations in the industry.

A central theme in Orlando this year was reducing college operating costs to manage net revenue. Speakers called out that the higher education business model and delivery system appears broken. Particularly at those institutions that are struggling with revenue generation. Why do we continue to push a traditional college delivery model in areas where technology is clearly positioned to disrupt (yes, it is overused, but you get the idea) business-as-usual? For my part, I spoke at a session about trends in bookstore services and textbook delivery. My session attracted a diverse mix of college CTOs, CIOs and CFOs, as well as publishers, our textbook rental partners CampusBookRentals, and some friendly competition by way of bookstore service operators like Follett and Rafter.

The data I presented contrasted how college technology officers and financial officers see the future of the college bookstore. For example, while only 18% of college business officers in our textbook delivery survey stated college bookstores will sell textbooks completely via their online store, 95% of college technology officers we (more informally) surveyed at UBTech see the future of textbooks as delivered completely in an online bookstore. Now, given we were at a tech conference, I am not surprised. But the technology folks also noted they are ‘not so much’ involved in decisions about the bookstore. Which leads me to the question, Why are our CTOs and CIOs not more involved in the selection of bookstore service operators and strategies?

I usually approach conferences as an opportunity to listen. I might come prepared with a leading question or a thesis I am trying to get feedback on. This year, it was definitely about asking how involved college CTOs and CIOs are in textbook delivery and bookstore services. But also, and perhaps more nuanced, how much do they want to be involved, to be included in the textbook dialogue?

Those that attended our UBTech session were self-selected in that they chose to attend a session about bookstore services, so with that, are telling us they want to be more involved. But overall at the conference, most tech folks I spoke with shared that they were somewhat neutral on the topic of bookstore services. But they were quick to offer that online delivery is the way to go. In my session’s group discussion, the majority of schools shared that they have brick-and-mortar components to their textbook sales process. They also said that one of the biggest drivers to building out bookstores in the future is the eventual adoption of digital texts by students and faculty. Our contemporary at Follett estimated that number at an average of 10%, while Rafter and CampusBookRenters had less information on digital text adoption, likely because the rental market focuses more on physical textbook delivery. Everyone from vendors to schools agreed that eTextbook adoption was doubling each year, though still at small numbers.

But if eBook adoption is doubling year-over-year at colleges, when eTextbooks do indeed reach the tipping point, the mass adoption of digital texts by college students will happen “fast and furiously” (to quote the keynote speaker…more on that in a minute). The colleges and universities in my session said this was one of their biggest concerns—they want to be prepared when ‘digital happens.’ So while competition by third party sites selling textbooks (such as Amazon) was a dominant concern for CFOs, digital textbook adoption was the clear driving issue for our information technology officers.

Now on to that keynote address I mentioned. The opening keynote was delivered by Gene Wade, co-founder and CEO of UniversityNow, was well received. I’d heard of UniversityNow before but didn’t really know what they did. Here is the gist:

UniversityNow identify themselves as a social venture whose mission it is to ensure that a quality higher education is available to people everywhere. They manage Patten University and New Charter University, both online institutions serving predominantly working adults and offering course delivery within a somewhat new paradigm. For example, one set of instructors teaches you, while a different set grades you (anonymously). Tuition is based on how long it takes to complete your program (typically about 2-3K a semester for as many classes as you can muster). Learning is self-paced. Exams aren’t “unlocked” until students can show within the LMS that they have mastered the skill sets needed to pass them. Classes are held completely online. Course materials are digital.

Mr. Wade shared that MOOCs have made going to school online “sexier,” but that they are not addressing the market need (eg., a call center employee who is getting left behind because he or she does not have a bachelor’s degree; and needs a convenient, affordable degree that represents key learning competencies learned). According to the speaker, UniversityNow’s flagship school, Patten University, costs 11x less than a 4-year private school. At some schools, cost of operation, of delivery, is higher than net tuition coming in. His point was that we need to lower the cost of delivery or else.

His most powerful message? That five years from now, most colleges and universities will be dealing with “the wreckage.” Schools like UniversityNow are happening (as its namesake suggests) now. His metaphor…the rest of world will go straight to cell phones while ‘old schools’ will be dealing with their outdated land-line systems. And, of course, what is that cost of that?

If college bookstore administrators want to be ready for the move to online textbook delivery, they might consider the parallels of planning for online course delivery. The MOOCs and SOOCs are indeed coming. If schools can equate online course delivery with online textbook delivery, and maybe capitalize on the popularity (and hysteria) of MOOCs in order to frame the strategies for digital textbook delivery, we think they can be well prepared to build an innovative yet practical vision for the college bookstore of the future.

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