New Student PIRGs Survey Confirms High Textbook Costs Impact Course Selection and Student Success

If you’re not aware of the work of the U.S. PIRG Education Fund & The Student PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups), you should be.  Among other initiatives, they focus efforts on making higher education more affordable.

They’ve recently released a new study on the textbook market and the rising impact of cost to students.

I’ve included a link to their study below, but here are a few of the items in the report that jumped out to me:

  • The cost of textbook and course materials continues to rise; the average student today spends up to $1,200 per year.
  • High textbook costs impact a student’s decision on whether or not to purchase textbooks for a course. Sixty-five percent of all students decide to not to buy a textbook for at least one of their courses.  This decision will also play into their academic preparedness and success.
  • Just as troubling, nearly 50% of the students surveyed indicated that textbook costs influence which and how many courses they take.
  • Used textbook and rental purchases help mitigate costs, but the proliferation of new editions drive up pricing for these solutions as well.
  • There continues to be strong student interest in utilizing Open Education Resources/Textbooks for their courses via electronic access with optional print purchase, as they can potentially save a student $100 per course.  In an effort to make OER materials more widespread, the study includes a call to action for faculty to consider the use of OERs for their courses.

These are just some of the key findings in the recent Student PIRGs report.  I urge you to read it for yourself and share your thoughts with me. The full report can be found at: http://studentpirgs.org/reports/sp/fixing-broken-textbook-market

You can also check out our recent survey of college presidents, provosts, and chief academic officers to see how institutional textbook affordability initiatives positively impact student retention, persistence and satisfaction. This report can be found under White Papers on our Resources page.

 

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Saint Leo University has mastered textbook affordablity

President Dr. Arthur F. Kirk, Jr. provides some excellent tips in this article on how the university has made its textbooks more affordable.  Check out his tips on how they accomplished this here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-arthur-f-kirk-jr/textbooks-costs-continue-_b_4612606.html.  This is exactly the kind of advice we offered in our recent survey of Presidents, Provosts and CAOs.  For the complete report see:  http://www.akademos.com/blog/2013/12/learn-how-to-lower-textbook-costs-while-increasing-student-and-faculty-satisfaction-at-your-school/.

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Learn how to lower textbook costs while increasing student and faculty satisfaction at your school

We are pleased to announce that our college President, Provost, and CAO survey on textbook trends is now complete!

What did we find? Schools with textbook affordability programs report lower textbook costs, as well as higher student and faculty satisfaction with textbook costs.

The bad news? Only 16% of schools surveyed reported having a formal textbook affordability program.

The good news? Our report includes some simple tips for starting and/or optimizing a textbook affordability program at your school.

Below are some additional key findings:

  • 93% of respondents agree that textbook costs impact retention and persistence/completion.
  • The majority of faculty and students are dissatisfied with textbook prices.
  • Obstacles to reducing textbook costs included the perception that publisher prices are increasing, that no one person or department is accountable, and that faculty don’t consider price in selecting appropriate texts.

As you may recall, in our CFO Survey on Textbook Delivery and Bookstore Services, 89% of respondents confirmed that students were leaving the campus-based bookstore to shop elsewhere.  High cost is the leading factor that’s driving students away.

A big thank you to our 500 participants for their time and feedback- we couldn’t have done it without you. If you were unable to participate in our last survey – email us! We’d love to hear your opinion on textbook delivery and the future of bookstore services.

You can download the executive summary white paper from our Resources page.

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Ed Tech Friends in Open Places: OERs Plan to Reduce Textbook Costs

We received a visit from Akademos founder and chairman of the board Brian Jacobs today! As noted previously on our blog, Brian left Akademos to start a new company focused on Open Educational Resources called panOpen. panOpen was selected to be part of the Kaplan EdTech Accelerator program and has been busy building an OER platform for a list of new client schools. To sign up for panOpen’s OER pilot program, visit them at http://www.panopen.org/.

Founder Brian Jacobs (right) visiting Akademos to brief John Squires (left) and team on the fast-moving OER movement.

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CT Lieutenant Governor Wyman and Senator Duff Visit Akademos Headquarters

Last week the team at Akademos received a visit from some of Connecticut’s government officials as they toured the state visiting education organizations and growing businesses. Lieutenant Governor Nancy Wyman, State Senator Bob Duff, and State Representatives Bruce Morris and Chris Perone all stopped by Akademos’ corporate headquarters in Norwalk, CT to talk about textbook affordability and overall college affordability.

Our interns, Rebecca Stabinsky and Marissa Intrieri were front and center. Rebecca made sure to grill the CT officials about what they are doing to improve the affordability of a college degree, citing rising student debt and the increased need to work one or more jobs to afford college as rising issues. 

Below are some pictures from the visit.

Akademos Team with CT State Government Officials

 

 

John Squires and Sarah Jensen Demo TextbookX Platform for Lt Governor

 

 

State Senator Bob Duff Takes Questions from Student Interns at Akademos

 

 

 

 

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Does Bigger Mean Bigger in the College Bookstore Business?

As a virtual bookstore provider, part of our philosophy is that you really don’t need a large physical footprint to sell textbooks. So, sometimes I grapple with how much exhibit space to get at the education conferences we attend (one booth is 10′ by 10′).  Does an innovative education technology company that is trying to change mindsets about the business model of a college bookstore really need 800 square feet to get the message across? That is a question that you, the college administrator, would probably be able to help me answer. But let’s agree that selling to CFOs is a little different than selling to students.

At a recent conference, as I walked the hall, I did note some organizations with build-outs that proved Rome can be built in a day.  Just one question–who is paying for all this? Yes, the company, but more than likely the school and their students. So, as an educational eCommerce company that is in a growth stage, does buying more booth space show that we are bigger?

The irony is, we are bigger because the market has finally caught up to the importance of online bookstore services for physical and digital textbook delivery (AKA, students are fleeing brick-and-mortars for online retailers in their search for cheap textbooks). If I defer to my retail 101, the bottom line is that every square foot of physical space better be performing darn well. Otherwise, eCommerce 101 will tell you to put it on the Web. And there, I will be judging sales performance per square inch. We also need to account for the cost of warehousing. What does it cost to store and ship all this overhead?

I’m pleased to say that the Akademos booth has been packed with customers stopping by to say hello. If I had to judge our performance per square foot, I’d say we exceeded projections by a mile.

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Congratulations to Board Member Eric Fingerhut

 

Akademos board director Eric Fingerhut was just named the President of Jewish student organization Hillel. Congratulations to Eric and we support him in his endeavors to continue supporting student learning.

About Eric

Eric D. Fingerhut, a nationally recognized leader in education and economic development policy, was until recently the Vice President for Education and STEM Learning at the Battelle Memorial Institute, the largest non-profit research and development organization in the world. He currently serves on the Board of Directors and Advisors of Akademos,the educational online bookstore provider. Fingerhut previously served as the Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, as an Ohio State Senator and as a member of the United States House of Representatives.  Chancellor Fingerhut earned a Bachelor of Science degree with highest honors from Northwestern University in 1981 and received a law degree from the Stanford University School of Law in 1984.

 

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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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Breaking News: GAO Releases HEOA Textbook Affordability Provision Report

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) today released its report on the implementation of the Textbook Affordability Provision of the Higher Education Opportunity Act. The report was released on-time (early, even) and comes two years after the provision was passed.

The GAO found a majority of colleges and universities stated they do provide textbook information online, though the report was unclear the number of schools the data represents.

  • 81% – schools provide textbook information online
  • 19% – schools DO NOT provide textbook information online

Of the schools that did not provide textbook information online, 12% stated they included textbook cost in tuition or fees.

The GAO report also noted that publishers stated they are disclosing the textbook information required by HEOA (such as pricing and format options) and are also offering unbundled course materials. But according to the report, “stakeholders GAO interviewed said these practices have had little effect on faculty decisions.” Faculty interviewed by the GAO shared that they prioritize “selecting the most appropriate materials for their courses over pricing and format,” which is no surprise and is as it should be. Faculty also added “they are more aware of affordability issues than they used to be,” though there was no data to judge progress on faculty awareness.

GAO also shared feedback from students they interviewed that “students have benefited from timely and dependable textbook information” such as having “sufficient information and time to comparison shop for their course materials before each academic term.”

Overall, the report made no recommendations, but in noting that they stakeholders they interviewed believed these new textbook affordability practices were not impacting faculty adoption decisions, underscores the lack of significant data that could track whether faculty have indeed received textbook information such as costs, and whether faculty have weighed this information in their textbook adoptions.

The Textbook Affordability Provision (SEC. 133 of HEOA) was passed in 2010. Its purpose is to ensure that students have access to affordable course materials by decreasing costs to students and enhancing transparency and disclosure with respect to the selection, purchase, sale, and use of course materials.

GAO was tasked with reporting on implementation by institutions of higher education, college bookstores, and publishers, with a focus on the availability of college textbook information on course schedules; pricing information to faculty publishers; use of bundled and unbundled material in the college textbook marketplace; and implementation of the provision by institutions of higher education, including the costs and benefits to such institutions and to students, all on or before July 1, 2013.

 

 

 

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Should College Bookstores Sell Books?

You may have seen the recent post on the Akademos blog summarizing outcomes from our survey of college and university CFOs about textbook trends and bookstore services practices. Many of our findings were not a surprise—such as the idea that students are leaving the college bookstore to shop at third-party retailers because of perceived better pricing. Others were a bit confounding—like the desire to offer students lower-cost textbooks, while simultaneously hesitating to sell textbooks from anywhere but brick-and-mortar college bookstores.

As college administrators search for the right direction regarding bookstore operations, I think lessons from changes in the trade bookstore business are worth considering in this discussion of how college bookstores may evolve. Today’s trade book consumer is fiercely value-conscious, and the brick-and-mortar bookstore business has been revolutionized by the selection, price, and speed of delivery offered by online retailers. Local bookstores that have survived have done so by offering unique services and products not readily available from online sellers.

Are college students any less concerned about value? A recent article published by The Chronicle of Higher Education (“Students Get Savvier About Textbook Buying“) shows that students are also diligent bargain-hunters. We see little evidence that college bookstores are adapting quickly to this challenge of providing superior value to their students. In fact, the trends we see from examining RFPs and college bookstore contracts suggest the opposite.

Bookstore contracts are too frequently awarded to service providers who promise double-digit commissions to schools, or multi-million dollar capital commitments to rebuild student centers or other campus facilities. Yet aren’t students the ones really paying for these high-cost contract commitments? And what of the corresponding business practices resulting from these agreements that conflict with the mission of higher education?

Here are a few consequences that give us concern:

  • Financial aid dollars are tied to use at the college bookstore, so students face the dilemma of using out-of-pocket funds to purchase low-cost textbooks outside the college bookstore, or running up their already high debt burden by overpaying for their course materials in their college bookstore.
  • Custom textbooks that offer little incremental value beyond the standard editions are developed in a coordinated effort between publishers, faculty, and bookstore operators. These books are often priced extremely high, and their exclusive availability in the college bookstores thwarts students from renting or purchasing used editions of these textbooks elsewhere.

We think it’s time to focus on how this cycle impacts student outcomes and drives up the cost of education, particularly with regard to attrition. It is estimated that “as many as one in three [students] frequently opt not to purchase required academic materials due to cost” (National Survey of Student Engagement, 2012). We know that for many community college students, the cost of learning materials can be as much as the cost of tuition. How is this cycle burdening schools with unintended costs from poorly prepared and under-performing students who don’t persist to completion?

It is only a matter of time before colleges must actively consider more efficient ways of meeting their students’ needs through alternative textbook and course material delivery platforms. If it is possible to provide complete availability of course materials, a robust used and rental marketplace, and access to free teaching materials like Open Educational Resources, then why are college administrators not more engaged in exploring alternatives to stocking textbooks in their physical stores?

In the end, we see the conversation about textbook costs as moving into a broader circle, involving the college CFO, provost, and president. College presidents have not been fully engaged in considering how schools meet this critical student need more efficiently. But since they are also under enormous pressure to cut costs and improve educational outcomes, the day when college presidents turn their attention to this key piece of student performance is surely close at hand.

We will soon share a comparable survey of college presidents and provosts to explore how their impressions of the issues raised here compare to those who, understandably, are primarily focused on the financial interests of their schools.

To learn more, sign up for our textbook delivery and bookstore services alerts.

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