College students have been left behind. What’s the plan to support them?

Unnecessary costs for course materials, such as paying for access codes, are making a bad situation worse. 

Consumer alerts

By Isabel Faherty, Boston College student and TPIN communications intern for U.S. PIRG


Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many of my friends at Boston College used to work jobs on campus to earn some money during the school year. When Massachusetts went into lockdown and universities, including BC, sent students home in March, those jobs — working at Hillside Café or at the alumni center — disappeared. For students who depend on campus jobs, or on jobs in the service and retail industries, the financial strain brought on by their disappearance is especially difficult.

Meanwhile, unnecessary costs for course materials, such as paying for access codes, are making a bad situation worse.

To give you an idea of what this looks like: I’ve taken four semesters of Spanish for my major. Beginner I and II use the same textbook and Intermediate I and II use a second. Yet, for more than $100 each semester, I have had to purchase an entirely new copy of each one because of a changing access code, paying again for books I had already bought.

Expenses such as these, at a time when students are struggling, are creating barriers to education and well-being, especially for the most vulnerable students.

What happened: In March, millions of college students were uprooted from their lives on campus and sent home for the rest of the semester, leaving behind friends, jobs and resources. Many hoped this period of remote learning would be temporary, but even as some campuses return to face-to-face instruction, financial concerns brought on by COVID-19 are still holding back many students and their families as the fall semester looms.

Employment opportunities for students are being limited by the outbreak. With the rapid closure of businesses in retail and hospitality that employ a large number of young people and the loss of on-campus jobs that relied on face-to-face interaction, students have been particularly hard hit. In a June survey of 1,500 students at Arizona State University, 40 percent reported having lost either a job, internship or job offer since the pandemic began. For students who previously worked to help pay for course materials, losses such as these impact their ability to succeed in class.

Why it matters: The high price of college textbooks remains one of the most significant out-of-pocket expenses for students. On top of shelling out for textbooks, too many students are faced with unnecessary expenses, such as having to pay for online access codes — or supplementary materials that provide access to online tests, quizzes and assignments. The cost of these access codes, which are sometimes required in order to take the tests and submit the assignments necessary to pass a class, present an extra obstacle for students who struggle to afford course materials.

Paying for course materials was an issue even before COVID-19: More than 1 in 10 students surveyed in fall of 2019 said they skipped meals due to course materials costs, according to a study by U.S. PIRG Education Fund, which surveyed 4,000 students from 83 institutions. Twenty-five percent reported needing to work extra hours to afford course materials.

Now, as students face increased financial stress due to COVID-19, all the little out-of-pocket costs associated with the cost of college are adding up to a crushing burden for the most vulnerable students. Without stable income, students are at risk of being forced to skip essentials such as internet service, access codes, food, childcare and rent. That means students face the threat of being literally priced out of participating in class during a pandemic, when they are already struggling with remote learning.

The big picture: Congress and universities all have an opportunity to knock down financial barriers for students this upcoming school year by taking action to provide open educational resources. Here are specific actions these institutions can take in the near future:

  • Congress should increase funding for new and existing programs that help colleges meet students’ basic needs. Some long-standing programs, such as work-study, childcare centers, and advising for first-generation college students, are more essential than ever. Other new initiatives, such as the broadband internet expansion in the HEROES Act and basic needs initiatives grants in the House’s proposed budget, would address critical funding gaps in services students will rely on to stay enrolled and engaged in college courses.
  • Congress can increase funding for its Open Textbook Pilot program, and individual campuses can scale up their own free and open textbook initiatives. A few years ago, U.S. PIRG led a national campaign for the Open Textbook Pilot, a federal grant program that funds the creation of free, online resources for students. Now, it is essential that Congress renews and increases funding for this program as students encounter increasing financial difficulties. As many classes will be online for the foreseeable future, faculty will need more financial and staff support to develop materials such as homework problem sets and free open-source platforms that can replace access codes — as well as professional development to create more engaging courses.
  • Faculty members can take into account students’ financial needs before assigning expensive access codes or digital materials. Professors can also advocate for increased open textbook use throughout their institutions or departments and can adopt free textbooks at online repositories such as LibreText, the Open Textbook Library and the OER Commons. LibreText and OER Commons also have collected supplemental learning materials. According to the high-quality publisher OpenStax based at Rice University, their open textbooks alone have saved students more than $1 billion since 2012.

What you can do about it: With this unprecedented change in the way colleges and universities across the country will conduct learning this year, it’s important to show solidarity for students struggling to afford their education. If you’re a faculty member or campus administrator, you can sign this statement in support of students and affordable course materials. If you’re a student leader on campus, you can advocate against expensive access codes and instead for high-quality, open textbooks. Sign the petition today.

Read more: Learn about U.S. PIRG’s Make Higher Education Affordable campaign and read our latest blog on how colleges are stepping up to meet student needs during the pandemic.


Photo Credit: Gustavo Fring via Pexels, public domain