Streaming Textbooks: Changing the Game - Higher Education
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Streaming Textbooks: Changing the Game

by Dale Dawes & Janelle L. Williams

Do you remember going to Blockbuster? After Netflix, would you ever go back?

Just like Netflix crushed Blockbuster, streaming textbooks through Cengage Unlimited has the possibility to change the textbook-publishing industry.  More importantly, if leveraged correctly by educators and students, Cengage Unlimited can change the lives of students who use their products. Students could pay $120 per semester to access all Cengage eBooks, digital products (approximately 19,800 publications and 2,300 digital products) and related resources (e.g., lecture videos, animated tutorials, PowerPoints).

Dr. Dale Dawes

Removing or significantly reducing the financial barriers that deter students from purchasing textbooks can eradicate issues of access and promote equity for millions of students looking to pursue higher education. Financially insecure students struggle with several issues that are detrimental to their educational goals, including problems with locating and securing food, housing, textbooks and school supplies. According to a 2016 study on financially insecure students, Hunger on Campus: the Challenge of Food Insecurity for College Students, 32 percent of the food-insecure students believed that issues with housing and hunger impacted their education. Fifty-five percent of these students reported not being able to purchase a required textbook as a consequence of their financial insecurity.

Nationally, institutions of higher learning are creating and refining processes to help address their students’ needs, including connecting students to resources to subsidize and reduce textbook cost.

In 2014, Tennessee State University, a historically Black institution in Nashville, attempted to address the issue of rising textbook costs by establishing an eBook system, which allowed students to pay a flat fee of $365 for general education classes. The fee is built into tuition, which reduced some of the out-of-pocket expenses for students and families. Glenda Glover, president of Tennessee State University, shared that “many of our students would go weeks before they even purchase a textbook, which in turn hurts them in the classroom. This new program allows students to have books the first day of class and gives them the ability to be successful since they will have the required materials.”

Dr. Janelle L. Williams

Cheyney University, another historically Black institution, took another approach to address their students’ need. Cheyney closed the campus brick-and mortar-bookstore to become more cost-effective as an institution and simultaneously reduce textbook cost for students. They maintain an online bookstore presence and encourage their students to explore affordable online options (e.g., Amazon) to purchase their textbooks.

According to the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Other parts of the cost of attendance, including living costs, transportation, books and supplies, and personal expenses make up between 50 percent and 80 percent of sticker price. As a result, low-income students can be faced with making difficult financial choices. For example, tight finances among low-income students can lead them to sacrifice food and housing to stay in school.”

Struggling with financial insecurity was something Michael Richards experienced firsthand. Though the Richards family emphasized education, at an early age, his father told him they could not afford college. Michael’s father explained that he would need to be diligent in his studies so he could earn a scholarship. Michael’s older brother, the first-born child, was in his first year of college at The Pennsylvania State University. As the middle child and next in line, Michael witnessed their parents struggle to provide his brother with supplemental income, including money for books. He still remembers the day, during his senior year of high school, when he walked through the door and his mother showered him with hugs and kisses. Michael had earned a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt). His family was excited because it changed their lives. His full-tuition scholarship provided some relief, but Michael would still need a combination of federal loans and support from the Richards family to pay for room, board and textbooks.

As a STEM major, Michael was required to take courses in mathematics, physics, chemistry and economics; all of which required expensive textbooks. He was hesitant when asking his parents for additional funds to pay for his textbooks and school supplies, but he needed them to be successful in the courses. An upperclassman told Michael about the Provost’s Office Funds for Disadvantaged Students (DSF), which provided approximately $250 to purchase textbooks and school supplies at Pitt’s bookstore. The DSF reduced the financial burden of purchasing textbooks for five of Michael’s eight semesters at Pitt.

Now, imagine if the $250 allocated to help one disadvantaged student for one semester was used to purchase access to Cengage Unlimited for two students for a semester. Through using Cengage Unlimited, each student could keep access to six eBooks for up to a year. For less money, an administrator of a Disadvantaged Student Fund could double the number of students assisted with textbook funding and double the duration of their access to this assistance. For STEM majors like Michael, streaming eBooks could have satisfied 80 percent of his textbook needs.

Of the many barriers to college access and subsequently college retention and success, a financial barrier can be the most crippling, especially to low-income and first-generation students. Once the cost of tuition and room and board are satisfied through financial aid (inclusive of grants, family contribution and loans), little ⎯ if any ⎯ money is left over for textbooks and other required materials.

In 2018, according to The College Board, the average college student attending a public four-year institution will spend more than $1,200 per year on books and educational supplies. While the cost can be defrayed by renting books or buying used books, the estimated cost can be burdensome and intimidating to students who simply cannot afford it. It can also leave a student to feel financially insecure and possibly unprepared for classes if the required textbook is too expensive. How can an institution or instructor justify requiring their students to pay hundreds of dollars per semester for textbooks when their students could pay $120 for almost all their textbooks in multiple disciplines for a semester?

When students’ knowledge of Cengage Unlimited starts spreading, how are forward-thinking administrators and instructors going to leverage this opportunity to maximize the new levels of access and equity to positively impact their students’ education, retention and persistence to graduation?

Dr. Janelle L. Williams is a visiting scholar at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow her on Twitter @SincerelyDrJae. Dr. Dale Dawes is an assistant professor at the City University of New York (CUNY): Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC).  You can follow him on Twitter @TheDocDawes

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