The Stimulus Package -- News From the Front

Hundreds of billions of dollars are flowing. Wick Sloane wonders: Can't the country spare $100 in textbook loaners for each of the nation's community college students?

March 28, 2009

To: Secretary Arne Duncan, U.S. Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, Jr.

Subject: Stimulus Package and Low-Income Students

My simple objective: a $100 per-student federal stimulus grant to the textbook-lending libraries of the nation’s 1,200 community colleges. But, help! I’ve looked everywhere. I can’t find find the money. Would you please send me the paperwork?

The cost to taxpayers? At 6.5 million community college students -- about half the undergraduate enrollment in the nation -- that’s just $650 million. Not billion. Just million.

Why? Listen to a few of my students at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston:

“I believe I am worth $100 and more. I am a disabled person who has decided to further my education at Bunker Hill Community College. This plan would help me be successful in college and get off supplemental income.” -- Beverly Brewington.

“This semester, I couldn’t buy all my books because I didn’t have enough money to buy them. I had to spend less money on food in order to have enough money to buy books. I asked myself why books have to be so expensive. A textbook can cost $300. I can’t understand this.” -- Marie N. Romélus.

Why books to textbook-lending libraries? Community colleges have no greater challenge than student retention. Even in strong economic times, these students -- with 50-hour-a-week jobs, families and long commutes -- attend school against all odds. A student with a full-time job in a hardware store last semester, for example, walked three miles to class one night. He only had money enough for one bus ride. These working students can’t afford these textbooks. For example, beside me, I have a sample copy of the premier anatomy and physiology textbook, for freshman and sophomore courses in the nation. This one is about $500, albeit with an interactive DVD.

A mediocre expository writing textbook can cost $40. Even for students with some financial aid, this high cost of textbooks can be the difference between taking a course or not. At Bunker Hill, limited funds permit about one loaner per student, while supplies last. My proposed textbook-lending library investment of $100 per student still leaves students with textbooks to buy. With the economy, enrollments are increasing and my totals are probably low. But pooling more textbooks in textbook-lending libraries helps.

Why? Listen to these students:

“The initial thought of a textbook assistance program seemed trivial to me. But, quickly I remembered the heat flash that passed over my body when I reviewed my invoice for books this semester. $400 -- For USED BOOKS!!! Now, I’m positive a comprehensive textbook assistance program means more to students now than ever before.” -- Marcus De La Vega.

“When I made the decision to go back to school, I knew I was in for an uphill battle. I filled out my financial aid application, and I wasn’t surprised that the government returned my application, stating that I would not receive any financial aid.... I really didn’t want to take out a student loan ... but I had no choice. Two weeks before school, I looked at my book list for classes, and the total was $550.56. The anxiety that I felt for having to scramble to get the money to pay for my textbooks is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.” -- Natishia Reeves.

Why books to community college textbook-lending libraries? Even with this immense government stimulus spending, I can’t see a political scenario for a $5,000- or $10,000- grant-per-student program, however well spent that money would be. (Pell Grants don’t get to these students as much as I would expect. I don’t know why.) This lending program is pitifully cheap, compared with AIG bonuses and bank bailouts. This lending program is cost-effective, needed and even sends a powerful message of support from the government to these struggling students. In leadership, as you three know well, symbolism counts. Accountability for $650 million is straightforward. These books are reusable resources that the colleges can administer with recourse – simply withhold the transcripts for students who fail to return a book.

Mr. Secretary, you must negotiate deals at deep discounts. This should not be the “Textbook Industry Unloads Inventory at Full Retail Program.” Textbook companies, with perpetual revisions, are a monkey wrench here, but this is a start. Why not require that textbook companies who benefit from this program have to guarantee the community colleges free copies of any textbooks revised over, say, the next five years? If you like, I’ll take a leave and negotiate this for you.

Why? Listen to these students:

“I am a chemical science major, and my books are going to be very expensive. I have many financial responsibilities as it is. I am worried I will not have funds to pay for all the books required. I am not sure what I should do because dropping a course means less financial aid, and I still would not be able to pay for books. How would I continue my education?” --Jamie Albert.

"If you believe that teaching a man to fish can feed him for a lifetime, then you can certainly agree that helping schools lend out textbooks can educate a nation of doctors, educators and lawyers.” --David A. Andrade.

Why books to textbook-lending libraries? Are these community college students worth this $650 million investment? Here’s what I know. Last week was spring break. The idea of spring break for either adult working students or, more and more, adult unemployed students is a joke. I just offered class through spring break. The regular Monday and Wednesday sessions at 7 a.m. and our optional session Fridays at 7 a.m. We had well attended classes last week, during spring break. I’d say that’s evidence that these students are worth an extra $100 from the stimulus package.
Secretary Duncan, Senator Kennedy, Senator Kerry -- I’ll give you a call in a day or two, to find out about the forms. Thanks.

P.S. IHE Readers: Does anyone know of examples of the stimulus package reaching community colleges other than construction? Either below or by e-mail, I would very much like to hear examples of stimulus programs, other than the Pell Grant bump, that will benefit low-income students. I've been
looking, with no luck so far. Hope I'm wrong.


Wick Sloane writes The Devil’s Workshop for Inside Higher Ed. He is also the author of “Common Sense,” a pamphlet asking if the bachelor’s degree is obsolete. Download the pamphlet free here.


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