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University of the Cumberlands President Larry L. Cockrum with UC Students. Photo Credit UC Communications & Marketing.

The University of the Cumberlands, the liberal arts university that cut tuition in half last year, is planning another bold cost-cutting move for its students next year. It will provide 1,800 undergraduates on campus free textbook rentals.

The decision by the Christian institution in Williamsburg, Ky., is part of the university's continuing mission to provide an affordable private college education to in-state students and those from the Appalachian Region, which has large swaths of rural areas and pockets of extreme poverty.

Although state and federal policymakers and higher ed officials are paying more attention to the educational and financial needs of college students from poor families in rural areas of the country, the issue has not gained as much traction in the current national debates about free college and student loan debt. The role of socioeconomic status in determining who goes to college and the influence it has on academic outcomes is largely seen as an urban problem.

Not so at Cumberlands.

"Eliminating textbook costs is an additional way for Cumberlands to serve students and remove barriers to obtaining a college degree," Cumberlands president Larry L. Cockrum said in a statement.​

The university will implement the free textbook loan service through Barnes & Noble College, which operates the Barnes & Noble company's textbook sales programs and 773 campus bookstores nationwide. Cumberlands will cover the steep costs of required course materials for all undergraduates living on campus. The initiative, which includes digital and printed textbooks and other course materials, will cost about $1.2 million annually, said Quentin Young, the university's CFO. Affordable textbook programs at other colleges and universities require students to pay a flat rate for textbooks each semester.

This latest move to wipe the cost of textbooks and course materials from students' ledgers is in keeping with the other efforts of Cumberlands to reduce the costs associated with attending college and to remove the financial barriers that keep students from low-income families from completing college. The average annual cost of textbooks and supplies rose to $1,263 during the 2016-17 academic year for students at four-year​ institutions, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Just last year, Cockrum cut tuition for students on campus by a whopping 57 percent. Other colleges that cut tuition did so at lower rates and often in response to falling enrollment. But the number of first-year students on the Cumberlands campus increased by about 5 percent in fall 2018, before the tuition cut took place, according to Andrew Powell, director of university communications and marketing.

"In the area that we service, we were finding that we were just out of price and out of line with what students were able to pay," said Jerry Jackson, vice president for enrollment and communications. "We knew that being in Southeastern Kentucky, affordability was a deterrent for students."

He said more than half of the university's undergraduate students are from Kentucky, many are from rural areas in Appalachia and 54 percent are eligible for Pell Grants, the federal financial aid program for low-income students.

The tuition decrease last year led to a 47 percent jump in enrollment at Cumberlands for the fall 2019 academic year that began on Aug. 21, according to the university. Administrators hope the free textbook loan program attracts even more students, Jackson said.

Both advocates for affordable education and course material providers are skeptical about the viability of a university-centered physical textbook rental program and the ability of Cumberlands to sustain it given the annual million-dollar price tag and publishers' desire to sell new books each year not to provide rentals.

Contract logistics

Cumberlands has partnered with Barnes & Noble College since 2004 to operate a bookstore on campus and online. But this will be the first time students at Cumberlands can get their course materials -- including physical and digital copies and access codes -- through First Day Complete, one of Barnes & Noble College's Inclusive Access programs, which offer materials below market price and ready for use when students start their classes.

"The major difference between First Day and First Day Complete is that Complete also includes print materials," Carolyn Brown, a spokesperson for Barnes and Noble Education, Inc., wrote in an email.

Other institutions, such as Campbell College in Buies Creek, N.C., that participate in the First Day program require students to pay a flat rate each semester to have course materials delivered through the campus bookstore.

The Cumberlands program will operate as an "opt-in" book loan service unless a student decides at the end of the semester to purchase and keep the materials, Jackson said. Professors will be asked to keep updated lists of required materials each semester so program administrators can determine how many physical books to stock based on the number of students enrolled in a class, or decide whether it would be more cost-effective to provide materials digitally.

The university will count on Barnes & Noble College to provide the delivery method preferred by the student, whether that's a physical textbook or Ebook, Young said. Some Cumberlands students don't have personal access to digital readers or computers, Jackson said, and some prefer having hard copies of textbooks in front of them.

Samuel Golden, a junior majoring in chemistry with a minor in business, is one such student.

"For certain classes … in the science department, I like to have a hard copy of a book if it's available," Golden said. "I could use an Ebook efficiently, but sometimes I like to spread things out on a table and have charts to look at -- a physical book makes that easier for me."

"The vendors … are willing to provide a wide variety," Young said. "At the end of the day, they're servicing the students and their needs."

The model of lending out and returning physical textbooks for students to reuse in subsequent courses, which follows a structure used in K12 classrooms, may negatively impact vendors' year-to-year profits and could actually encourage higher textbook costs, said Michael Hale, vice president of education at VitalSource, a digital course material provider. If the program is implemented more broadly this way, publishers would lose money on the reused textbooks that the school already has in its collection, he said, noting that digital materials can be produced and sold far more affordably.

"I love any program that removes the cost of course materials to make them more affordable and accessible," Hale said. "But if this program were to scale across the country, publishers would likely lose profits because one book is being reused multiple times by several students. As a result, the publishers may move to increase their pricing in an effort to recoup losses, resulting in higher costs for universities that buy the materials."

In Young's view, partnering with individual universities offers an opportunity for bookstore vendors to gain footing in the textbook rental market, which they've been losing to online-only sellers.

Kaitlyn Vitez, director of the Make Higher Education Affordable Campaign of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said online sellers offer more competitive pricing to bargain-hunting students on an individual level, whereas a university-wide rental program could cost more because of its size.

"When the school is taking up the costs of textbooks rather than the individual student, there are some economies of scale that come into play," she said. "While an individual student might be able to find a really cheap copy of the latest edition of a textbook, the university has to find 500 copies of this textbook."

Affordability isn't an issue for Golden, but he said keeping up with changing textbook editions, shipping costs and rental return deadlines from online-only vendors is difficult. When you add or drop a class after the semester begins, the cost of shipping the materials back and forth adds up, he said. He believes the textbook rental program could eliminate these inconveniences.

"If it's the wrong book, you can take it right back," Golden said. "That's a lot more convenient than the way it used to be."

Free on campus, not online

A big question among college affordability advocates is how Cumberlands intends to sustain the program over time without charging students.

Powell noted that the university's online degree programs are a significant source of funding.

Nearly half of the 11,363 students enrolled in fall 2018 were online students seeking graduate-level degrees. Tuition remained the same for online students last year despite the massive price drop for undergraduates on campus. Online students will not be eligible for the free book rental program.

First-year, online undergraduate enrollment increased by nearly 40 percent in fall 2018 and again by about 52 percent this year, according to Powell. Online undergraduate programs cost $199 per credit hour. Online graduate programs, which took off in 2011, charge about $300 per credit hour, depending on the degree, he said.

"The University of the Cumberlands is a unique situation where they have a large pot of money where they're able to pursue projects like this to have a real tangible impact on students," Vitez said.

She's concerned that the university is using its thriving online programs to subsidize tuition and textbooks for on-campus students even though online students have just as much need for affordable education.

Powell disputed that assertion. He noted that when tuition costs are broken down by credit hour, on-campus students continue to pay more even after the tuition drop last year, about $273 per credit hour for full-time students compared to the $199 per credit hour paid by online students.

"Over the course of the last seven to eight years, we've grown, and most of that growth has been in the online market," Powell said. "To say that we take a dollar from the online student and give it to the on-campus student is not accurate at all. Cockrum has been wise about investing in the university, placing money in the right places, to benefit all students."

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