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'Inclusive Access' and the Comcast Problem

Textbook prices are a problem; so are monopolies.

 

February 4, 2019
 
 

(For purposes of this piece, I’m using Comcast as a placeholder for any local monopoly.)

As longtime readers know, I’m a supporter of Open Educational Resources (OER), and I’m a seasoned veteran of handset-to-handset combat with customer service people at Comcast. That combination is probably why a lawsuit around “inclusive access” textbook arrangements in South Carolina caught my eye.

“Inclusive access” comes in a few flavors, but in essence, it’s a large-scale text rental program.  It’s often described as “Netflix for books,” and there’s some truth in that. For a set fee per semester or year, students are given limited-time access to electronic books from one or a set of publishers.  Right now, the big three -- Pearson, McGraw Hill, and Cengage -- offer publisher-specific programs in which colleges that sign on have to agree to use materials offered by that program. In return, the publishers offer a total price for students that’s significantly cheaper than it would be if they bought everything a la carte.

The appeal is cost reduction across the curriculum in one fell swoop. For a student who takes, say, thirty credits a year, the total book cost under the current system can easily top $1,000. If inclusive access comes in below, say, $200, that’s a dramatic savings.

In South Carolina, a local used bookstore is suing Trident Technical College on the basis that its inclusive access program is anti-competitive. By hiding the cost in student fees and making the fees mandatory, it is essentially crowding out any possible competitors. Students can’t shop around; the decisions have already been made for them.

There’s an obvious self-interest in the bookstore’s suit. Having said that, it may be right for the wrong reasons.

My wariness around “inclusive access” is based on several reasons, one of which sort of overlaps with the offended bookstore.

First, and most basically, I have a problem with a college telling its faculty that it can only use resources from one publisher, or from one family of publishers.  Yes, the big three publishers are quite big, and they can cover a lot of ground. But faculty don’t work for publishers. They should be allowed to choose the materials they think will be best for students.  I square that stand with my support for OER by offering carrots, rather than sticks, for the adoption of OER. And OER comes from a large pool of providers, sometimes including local faculty themselves. As long as it’s free to students, I honestly don’t care where it originally comes from.  And even I will concede that OER remains more relevant in some areas than in others. For high-enrollment introductory Gen Ed classes, it makes a world of sense, and the options are many. For more specialized upper-level classes, maybe not. I see the ideal rollout of OER as incremental, probably starting with lower-level courses and working their way up. Brookdale has done that, and based on some back-of-the-envelope numbers I ran last week, has saved students over $1 million per year in textbook costs based only on the courses that have already adopted OER, or that have committed to doing so by Fall. And that’s with several large pieces of low-hanging fruit not yet picked. Meanwhile, specialized areas have been left alone.

Second, inclusive access doesn’t do much for part-time students. Within the model, it doesn’t really make sense to subdivide, so students taking only a class or two can wind up paying the same per semester as full-time students. Given that part-time students are often part-time due to economic constraints, hitting them with a higher per-credit cost just seems mean. (Admittedly, this may be a matter of how a given program works. If it works by a per-credit fee, rather than a per-semester or per-year fee, this objection may be moot.)

But my largest concern has to do with Comcast. When we lived in Massachusetts, Comcast was the only choice for cable tv and home broadband. It had no competition. As a result, it raised prices dramatically every year, with customer service that ranged from “negligent” to “openly hostile.” Given monopoly status, it went hog-wild. Its methods looked a like what I’m seeing with inclusive access -- offer a low introductory rate to get people to sign on, then start jacking up prices.  After a few years, the Comcast rates became absurd.

I got direct personal confirmation of that when we moved back to New Jersey, and into a neighborhood that had two competing broadband and cable providers. Just having a second option meant that the service got dramatically better, and the cost dropped by nearly $100 per month. If one provider got too greedy, it would lose customers to the other, and it knew that.  Competition provided a deterrent to price gouging.

If a college commits all (or most) of its curriculum to a single provider, what’s to stop that provider from pulling a Comcast? Offer a low introductory rate, then capitalize on the reluctance to change by jacking up rates over time. At least with incremental adoption of OER, we have the opportunity to shift a few classes at a time if/as it becomes necessary; with an across-the-board provider, especially one supported by student fees, the college is at the mercy of the for-profit company. Yes, contracts are time-limited, but realistically, telling a faculty that it has to change its books for every single class at the college next year is a nightmare. I’ve seen people get worked up over a possible change to an LMS, which is much less dramatic than an imposed change to textbooks. Inertia and campus politics would push hard against any change. That would give the publisher Comcast-like power to have its way with the students.

In the case of cable providers, we’ve seen an emergence of “cord-cutting” over the last few years.  Piecemeal options for other ways to get what they want have led many people to walk away from abusive monopolies.  That’s as it should be. That works in part because of technological evolution, but in part because people mostly know what they want.  In the case of college textbooks, students are told what to get. The used bookstore industry worked as a lower-cost option for a while, but it has struggled in the age of digital codes and electronic resources.  As the folks who tell students what they need, we have an ethical obligation to keep cost in mind. Establishing a monopoly is not the way to do that.

Whether this particular bookstore’s claim has merit, I don’t know.  But at a larger level, it has a point. Monopolies abuse; that’s what they do. This is not the time to set up more of them, even if the introductory teaser rate looks pretty good.

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