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President Biden stands at a podium and next to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona

The Biden administration is looking to eliminate colleges’ ability to automatically charge students for books and supplies as part of tuition and fees. The proposal is still in the early stages.

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The Biden administration wants to roll back an Obama-era policy that allowed a procurement model for digital textbooks and course materials to flourish—a move that’s alarmed publishers and institutions, but one that student advocates say would give students more choices.

The Association of American Publishers says nearly half of all degree-granting institutions have adopted a version of the sourcing option known as inclusive or equitable access, in which students receive all required course materials—offered for sale at below-market rates through deals struck between institutions, publishers and campus bookstores—by the first day of class as part of their tuition and fees.

The Education Department proposes to take away colleges’ ability to automatically bill students for their books and supplies, with only a few exceptions. Instead, students would have to opt in.

Publishers say the moves could deal a fatal blow to inclusive and equitable access systems. The change would make the models unworkable, they argue, because an opt-in approach could lead to fewer participants. For the programs to work, they say, a large bulk of students have to participate; without that, students could see higher costs for course materials.

Kelly Denson, senior vice president of education policy and programs for the AAP, said changing the policy would have an “outsized and very negative impact” on college students.

“Ironically, the Department of Education is doing this even as the Biden-Harris administration is on record for pushing for affordability in higher education, including through loan forgiveness,” Denson said. “It’s a little disconcerting to think that they would roll back the enormous progress made on course material affordability.”

Proponents say the policy change will give students back their autonomy, and they question claims that students are actually saving money.

“In the past, students had the option to purchase second-hand, rent, or borrow certain materials from the library,” Christina R. Hilburger, a librarian at the State University of New York at Fredonia, wrote in an email. “With inclusive access, these students may find themselves in a situation where they could ultimately be spending more on their course materials.”

The access models are opaque and primarily benefit publishers, say critics who believe that open educational resources—publicly licensed materials available for free—are a more long-term sustainable solution to high textbook costs. For students in the access models, they say it’s not always clear how to opt out or feasible to do so, especially if their courses use software that’s required for assignments and quizzes. In addition, students don’t own the materials and typically lose access when the course ends—and the resources or textbooks they’re paying for aren’t always used in their classes.

“If inclusive access is [the] great deal that many people claim it is, there’s no reason to believe that students won’t continue to do that voluntarily,” said Nicole Allen, director of open education at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, or SPARC.

The proposed policy change, first outlined earlier this year, is part of several “student-friendly” regulatory proposals aimed at ensuring students receive the financial aid they are entitled to. The plan is still in the early stages and subject to negotiation over the next two months, so it could change. Any regulatory change won’t take effect until July 2025.

The Education Department did not respond to a request for more information about the proposed policy change.

‘Not the Way to Go’

The federal government clarified in 2015 that colleges could lump the costs of books and supplies into tuition and fees, and established certain guardrails, such as that materials have to be offered at below competitive market rates. Although the Education Department initially wanted to prohibit the practice, agency officials were eventually persuaded that the program would allow an institution to negotiate lower prices on materials for students.

Still, officials worried that even with the opt-out measure, “students who would otherwise seek lower cost alternatives will settle, out of sheer convenience, for the price of books and supplies negotiated by the institution.” The department encouraged institutions to negotiate agreements that provided options for students.

Shahrooz Moosavizadeh, a math professor at Norfolk State University and director of its equitable access program, said the change allowed his institution to charge students a flat fee of $25 per credit hour, which can add up to $375 for a typical 15-hour course load.

“It is imperative that our students have their course materials on the first day of classes,” he said. “An opt-out program allows us to do that because the school can buy materials for an entire class at one time and they don’t have to do millions of transactions.”

Moosavizadeh said only five of the university’s more than 5,700 students opted out of the program in the last academic year. “We’ve come a long way since the days of ridiculous textbook prices,” he said, pointing to a single calculus textbook that used to cost $275. “Taking a step backward and going back to the old approach is not the way to go. My office is open to making it as transparent as possible.”

The National Association of College Stores says student spending on course materials dropped from an average of $662 in 2012–13 to $285 in 2022–23. Some chalk up the lower costs to the growth in inclusive access; others say it’s happened because instructors have shifted to digital resources, with or without the programs, and to using more free materials.

But even as the cost of course materials has dropped, the bill is still too high for some students, said Julia Seaman, research director for Bay View Analytics, a research firm that surveys students and faculty about educational resources and other topics.

She found in a recent survey of Pennsylvania students that the average cost of course materials was $90 per course—$360 for four classes. “That’s down from over $120 [per course] a few years ago, pre-pandemic, but that’s still a lot of money to ask an 18-year-old to pay up front for their courses,” she said.

Michael Moore, a researcher at the University of New Hampshire and consultant focused on course materials, says the proposed policy change would undo “the positive work that’s been done in the last decade to help drive down the cost of course materials and increased access to course materials for students.” His research has found that students who participate in inclusive access do better in classes than those who don’t.

He said that if the department decides to require greater transparency and a clearer opt-out process, it would be an “excellent compromise.”

More Convenience or More Choices?

Like the industry experts, students also disagree about whether the access models are the best option for them.

Madison Lewis, a sophomore at Iowa State University, prefers the convenience of the inclusive access model. She’s a student ambassador for McGraw-Hill, a leading higher education textbook publisher, which means that she offers feedback on materials and shares information about the company’s resources with peers.

“I don’t have to worry about finding textbooks,” said Lewis, who is majoring in communication studies. “I love being able to access everything that I need online and at my fingertips.”

This semester, she paid about $35 through her university’s inclusive access plan, which covered the materials for two classes. She also spent $87 on a textbook. Not all of her classes use or require textbooks. On average, she’s paid about $100 to $200 per semester for inclusive access, which Iowa State calls immediate access.

“If immediate access went away, I would definitely experience an increase in stress,” she said. “The beginning of every semester for college students is extremely stressful. Having to find all the required course materials online or go to a bookstore—it would be incredibly stressful and incredibly difficult.”

She pointed to an experience this year when she had to find a required psychology textbook, of which the campus bookstore only had 10 copies.

“So in a course of 80 psychology students, only having 10 copies of a textbook, it’s a nightmare,” she said. “You are going to be fighting to the death for your textbook. I couldn’t imagine having to worry about that for every class.” (The psychology class reverted to immediate access, and she was able to access the textbook online.)

Graceanne Hoback, a junior at Florida State University and leader of a campus textbook affordability campaign, is frustrated with her campus’s inclusive access system. In her first semester, she was charged $160 for two books required for a general education class. But those books were barely used, she said.

Hoback is president of the Public Interest Research Group at Florida State, a chapter of a national organization that works with students to tackle issues important to them, and she runs the Open Textbook Alliance, which aims to make course materials more accessible and affordable. As part of her work, Hoback heard from students who didn’t know how to opt out—or didn’t realize they could. Some said they’ve paid $500 in one semester for course materials through inclusive access.

“None of these costs are communicated up front,” she said, adding that some of the course bundles include access codes for course software that’s required for class assignments and quizzes or tests. “Opt-out is only feasible in courses where it’s only the textbook that you are getting.”

Hoback said an opt-in model would be “less of a threat to students’ autonomy,” though she would rather see additional measures to protect students and lower the cost of course materials.

“Ultimately, we’re adults,” she said. “If a student chooses to spend $160 on their basic needs to sustain themselves through weeks of school rather than buying a course textbook and would take the hit of a B-minus or a C, then I believe that that’s their choice in being an adult at a university. If the course textbook is that significant in a student succeeding in class, that should still be their choice.”

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