A classic scene in another college bookstore.

Don't Shop Online

August 22, 2014

Faculty members at George Washington University are once again free to tell students they can save money by buying their textbooks online, after the university initially urged professors to stop pointing students to sources other than the campus bookstore.

In a letter dated July 17, the university reminded faculty members of its “contractual obligation” with Follett, which runs the campus bookstore. Since the company has the “exclusive right” to provide textbooks and other course materials for all of the university’s courses, “alternative vendors may not be endorsed, licensed or otherwise approved or supported by the university or its faculty.”

The letter irked many faculty members -- not only did it prevent them from helping students save some money on textbooks, but it also seemed to prohibit them from listing on their syllabuses open educational resources, online exercises and other content that could help students understand the material.

With students heading to college this month, the additional expenses they incur while on campus -- particularly the cost of textbooks -- are again making headlines. On Monday, Mark J. Perry, a University of Michigan professor and scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, shared a graph showing the cost of textbooks has grown by 150 percent since 1998.

On Aug. 11, the university sent a clarification, walking back the guidelines and reiterating its commitment to curbing the rising cost of textbooks. “Individual faculty have discretion as to what information they put on their syllabus, including any options available to students to obtain texts,” Nancy M. Haaga, managing director of campus support services wrote, apologizing for the confusion.

In the letters, the university connected the guidelines to the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which requires -- "to the maximum extent practicable" -- institutions that receive Title IV funds to make textbook information available to students.

Kurtis Hiatt, a spokesman for the university, told Inside Higher Ed what he told the GW Hatchet, the independent student newspaper that first reported the story. “Faculty members have discretion over what they put on their syllabi, and we needed to be clearer about that,” Hiatt said in an email, declining to provide any further comment.

Other institutions have embraced the competition online bookstores present. At the University of California at Davis, for example, the campus bookstore features online vendors’ prices alongside its own. The university is also working to extend a partnership with the online retailer Amazon, which gives UC-Davis 2 percent back from every sale through a university-branded store.

A spokeswoman for the National Association of College Stores declined to comment for this article.

Some of the “alternative vendors” that could have been affected by a gag order were not as mum.

“I’m happy to hear that GWU reconsidered and is now supporting faculty who are working to ensure access to affordable textbooks,” said Richard G. Baraniuk, the Rice University professor who founded the nonprofit publisher OpenStax College. “This follows the trend that we are seeing of colleges and universities actively supporting the adoption of affordable, open textbooks.”

Ariel Diaz, CEO of Boundless, which makes digital “alternatives” to popular textbooks, called the guidelines “appalling,” and urged institutions to treat their bookstores as a nonprofit student service.

“It really highlights the massive conflict of interest in colleges and universities viewing the bookstores as a source of profit, at the expense of the very students they’re trying to serve,” Diaz said in an email. “Unfortunately scenes like this are playing out all over the country (though probably less egregious and visible). The solution is more transparency and more choice. This will lead to better products and better prices.”

Update: This article has been corrected to clarify the textbook provision of the Higher Education Opportunity Act.

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