How to Make Textbooks More Affordable for College

One innovative way a university department has approached the challenge.

Student with booksI knew there was a problem when the textbook I had assigned for one of my chemistry classes was listed at $325 in the bookstore. It was the book that our department had been using for more than a decade, information pills but the latest edition had just come out and the list price was $270. I encouraged my students to use the previous edition and to find used copies, and I thought everything was fine. The following year, I was no longer teaching the course, but the same textbook was being used. I wondered how students were affording the book, but I didn’t give it too much thought until several of them came to my office. When they asked for help solving problems, I pulled out my copy of the textbook, opened it to the relevant section, and showed them how to use the information provided to answer the question.  The students seemed surprised that the information they needed was readily available in the textbook. At first I was worried that the students weren’t bothering to open the book. I found that hard to believe so I finally started asking them if they had a copy of the textbook. They were embarrassed, but finally admitted that they hadn’t been able to purchase the book and were trying to make do with the copy on reserve at the library, or trying to share with friends. At that point, I became determined to find a way to help our students.

Thanks to funds that became available from an HSI-STEM grant received from the Department of Education, we were able to use part of those funds to establish a textbook lending program. I knew that this would go a long way toward helping our students with the basic supplies they needed for success, and also align with the main goal of the project, which is to support student learning.

First, the department had to determine which courses we would buy textbooks for. We wanted books that could be reused for several years so we chose to target the basic courses, the ones in which the students build their foundations for their upper division classes. Next we had to determine the number of copies that needed to be purchased and where to get them. We found that the easiest and most cost-effective thing for us to do was to buy the books directly from the publishers.

Purchasing the books was an adventure. Most publishers are used to receiving orders from bookstores, not a faculty member. It took more time than I ever imagined to determine the correct ordering protocol for each publisher. I then had to get multiple signatures at NDNU before placing each order. Finally, all of the orders were placed and only one title was on back-order.

The textbooks started coming in and then the real fun began! We had mountains of books (602 books to be exact) that had to be labeled and sorted. We had originally hoped to run the lending program through the library, but since that was not possible, we decided to house it in the Chemistry Lab. We made labels with a unique ID number for each book. We then had to place the labels on the books, create a check-out form, and have all of the books ready to go by the beginning of the semester. And as though we needed more pressure, we had to make sure the books were checked out within the first few days of the semester so that the Chemistry Lab would then be usable for its real purpose: as a lab!

Miraculously, it all worked out. The first few days of checking out textbooks were very hectic and sometimes we had lines of students out the door and down the hallway, but we were able to provide the books to students in 16 different math and science classes (10 different titles). The students were very patient and thankful as they checked out the books. They were all very polite and thanked us over and over. It was a great feeling to know that we were able to provide this basic resource for them.

In their first semester at Notre Dame de Namur University in Fall 2013, freshmen majoring in science saved about $370 through the Textbook Lending Program. By their second semester, most science majors will have saved about $577.  That is a considerable savings!

There are still some basic costs for students since some courses require using an online homework system and NDNU is not able to provide online access codes for all of the courses, but these costs are definitely more manageable ranging from $30- $85 for online access depending on the course.

If you are an NDNU undergraduate student who cannot afford the cost of your math or science books, please contact me at ihaithcox@ndnu.edu. We are here to help provide access to the education you deserve.

Isabelle Haithcox, Ph.D. is a Professor of Chemistry in the Natural Sciences Department and Project Director of Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) Program – STEM Grant at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, CA.

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