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A picture of a balance scale with a sack of money on one side and a pile of textbooks and a graduation mortar board on the other.

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This has been a tumultuous year on America’s college campuses, with protests, counterprotests, and shocking mismanagement of the system that provides students with federal financial aid.

As researchers—one of us tracks costs associated with attending college, and the other studies the impact of course material acquisition models on academic performance—we’ve joined together to sound an alarm about yet another coming calamity in hopes that raising awareness will stop a proposed change from the U.S. Department of Education that will impact American higher education just as seriously as any of the events mentioned above.

For the last decade we have watched as annual student spending on course materials dropped continuously. And today the research organization one of us (Eric Weil) leads—Student Monitor—will report that spending went from a dizzying $610 in the 2013–14 academic year, to just $332 for the current academic year, roughly flat on a year-over-year basis, but also representing an historic, decade-long decline of 45 percent.

This all-too-rare example of affordability in higher education is largely attributable to a remarkable plan that is generally known as inclusive access or equitable access, through which the costs of textbooks and course materials are included in students’ tuition and fees. The rules that facilitate these programs, which were laid out by the Department of Education during the Obama administration, let colleges and universities purchase enough course materials to cover the needs of an entire class at one time. The fact that they buy in bulk gives colleges the market power to negotiate with publishers and realize steep discounts, driving the dramatic decline in spending on course materials, even as the cost of attending college continued to soar.

Buying in bulk also gave colleges the ability—for the first time in history —to provide students with all their required materials on the first day of class, and& one of us (Michael Moore) has spent the last few years working to understand how that first-day access impacts classroom performance. Moore’s research has demonstrated that underrepresented student populations using inclusive access experience significantly increased success rates,& with students who identify as Black seeing the largest improvements in course success rates—defined as earning a “C” or better—of almost 13 percent. In the first-ever study on equitable access, Moore’s data demonstrated that students who participated in the model had an average course completion rate 15.58 percent higher than those who opted out, with the difference climbing as high as 22 percent for some student groups.

In light of these findings, it is clear that these programs are, in reality, intervention models that improve the performance of at-risk students, with day-one access to course materials comprising a major step forward.

In spite of all of the proven success described above, the Department of Education is moving aggressively to gut these programs and has lumped them into the Biden administration’s push to eliminate what it calls “junk” fees. Instead of allowing colleges to automatically charge students for textbook costs, while giving them the choice to “opt out,” under the Education Department’s proposal students would have to “opt in”; if too few students do so, as could be expected, colleges will lose their bargaining power with publishers, and inclusive and equitable access programs will fail.

While a push to save college students money is certainly admirable, this move will eliminate the very system that has delivered them significant savings.

It is also highly unproductive to lump high-quality course materials in with the unnecessary fees we think of when buying concert tickets. As Moore’s research clearly demonstrates, these materials are hardly junk. They are carefully crafted by some of our nation’s brightest scholars, deliver extraordinarily high levels of pedagogy, and include accessibility features that meet the needs of students with disabilities. These are not “add-on” fees from the university, but a way to ensure all students start on the same level playing field, with the resources they need.

To be clear: high-quality course materials aren’t simply “nice to have.” They are critical to the success of students in all sectors.

All the available research points to the efficacy of inclusive and equitable access programs, and the Department of Education has offered no data whatsoever to support its proposal of effectively eliminating them.

The Biden administration must force the Department of Education to change course: Rushing forward with good intentions, but with no research, and no real game plan, is not the stuff of success. And the world of higher education simply cannot stand another flubbed intervention like the FAFSA debacle. There’s too much at stake for colleges, universities, parents and, most of all, students.

Eric Weil is the managing partner of Student Monitor LLC, a syndicated market research study of the U.S. and international college student market.

Michael Moore, Ed.D., is an affiliate research assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire. His research includes studies on inclusive and equitable access programs, and can be accessed at

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