Online access codes for college-textbook materials are eroding attempts to bring down the cost of textbooks, a student consumer-advocacy group says.
Book publishers that bundle online access codes with college textbooks are thwarting attempts to bring down the price of the books, which can cost as much as $1,200 per academic year, a student advocacy group says.
The proliferation of access codes — which are sold along with textbooks and hide homework and quizzes behind an online paywall — makes it impossible for students to buy or sell used textbooks at the end of the semester or quarter, said Madison Longbottom, the chair of WashPIRG Students, a state chapter of U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). PIRG is a nonprofit consumer-research agency with a number of student chapters.
The access codes usually expire at the end of the quarter or semester, making it impossible for students to resell or reuse them, said Longbottom, a student at the University of Washington.
PIRG released a report late last month showing the growing trend of faculty members teaching introductory courses using textbooks bundled with access codes. That drives up the cost of taking these courses, which are required for many majors.
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PIRG is urging faculty to choose “open educational resources” — free online textbooks that are usually written by groups of instructors to cover essential college courses. Longbottom said faculty members are usually open to the idea of switching to open resources, but many aren’t familiar with them.
As part of their campaign to lower costs, WashPIRG students have been visiting UW professors during office hours and asking them to sign a faculty pledge to consider other textbook options, Longbottom said.
John Danneker, director of the UW’s Odegaard Undergraduate Library and an open- textbook advocate, said in an email that the university has been making “slow but steady progress” at getting faculty to switch to the free textbooks, such as the ones offered through Open Textbook Library and Rice University’s OpenStax.
But he said the paid access codes have become a real barrier to adoption of open textbooks.
To counter that trend, he said, open-textbook advocates are working to create no-cost online resources to supplement free textbooks, such as question banks and problem sets. “We feel that having open ancillary materials will be a great improvement to the landscape and may inspire greater adoptions of open textbooks,” he said.
The UW has also offered grants to help pay for the creation of new open textbooks, he said.
According to the PIRG report, the price of textbooks has risen more than four times the rate of inflation during the past decade. And while many students have found ways around paying top dollar for textbooks — tracking down used copies online, for example — the trend toward requiring access codes cuts off that option.
Longbottom said there are many open textbooks available for core classes, so requiring a pricey new book bundled with access codes is “frankly absurd.”
PIRG estimates that if the nation’s colleges and universities used free textbooks to teach 10 popular introductory courses included in its study, the move would save college students $1.5 billion a year.