New report: Automatic textbook billing: Limited choice, uncertain savings

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BOSTON — Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education proposed a regulatory change that would give students the right to “opt in” to textbook and course material charges, rather than being billed on their tuition invoices without their affirmative consent. This proposed policy would empower students, provide greater consumer choice and improve transparency. To make the case that the Biden administration should make its proposal a rule, the Student PIRGs and U.S. PIRG Education Fund released on Thursday a new report: Automatic textbook billing: Limited choice, uncertain savings.

This new study of so-called “inclusive access” billing programs shows that they lock students into an uncompetitive textbook market and may limit the spread of open educational resources, which can be customized by faculty and are available for free.

“Last semester, FSU enrolled me in automatic textbook billing. It cost more than $300, so I had to get food from our campus food pantry,” said Savannah Lebedeker, a junior at Florida State University. “In past years, I bought secondhand books but ‘inclusive access’ took away my ability to find a cheaper option.”

Report researchers reviewed 171 contracts for course materials at 92 two- and four-year public colleges and universities or consortiums of public higher education institutions. Specifically, they found:

  • Of the contracts between schools and third-party bookstore operators that included provisions for automatic textbook billing, most included revenue-sharing provisions between the bookstore and the school. In other words, the school bills students for textbooks, pays the bookstore and then receives a portion of that money back. This creates a potential conflict between students’ and the institution’s financial best interests.
  • Some contracts with publishers require that a very high percentage of students participate in automatic billing programs or the school risks losing promised discounts. This may discourage schools from promoting used or rental textbooks that might save money for students or from making reasonable efforts to ensure students can opt out.
  • A key selling point of automatic textbook billing programs is the promise that they will reduce student costs. However, savings in contracts with publishers, third-party bookstore operators and digital platforms are difficult to evaluate, and some contracts may provide no savings.

“This is simply fairness 101. Automatic textbook billing is unfair as it removes our choice on whether or not, or how, we want to get our course material,” said Owen Myka-Smith, a senior at UMASS Boston. “College is expensive enough and one way I keep costs down is using open resource course material and used textbooks.”

“Calling something ‘inclusive access’ may sound great for students, but in reality they’re anything but inclusive,” said Dan Xie, a report co-author and the Student PIRGs’ national political director. “These programs undercut low-cost options such as free, open textbooks, used books, and textbook rental programs. As a result, students now have fewer options than ever to save money when purchasing course materials.”

This current system often makes it difficult for students to easily opt out of these programs or use older, used textbooks without classroom penalties.

“When I decided to opt out, it was hard to figure out how,” said Julia Trachtman, a junior at the University of Pittsburgh. “It would be more inclusive to let students choose whether or not they want to buy a textbook instead of automatically billing us.”