Anyone who has spent time on a college campus is familiar with complaints about textbooks. As a graduate student in my tenth year of higher education, I have a long history with the struggle to find the cheapest used books, to secure the correct editions and compare the benefits of renting and purchasing, and most importantly, to determine when and why I may actually use the pricier tomes. As a teacher, I also know the difficulty of making sure my students have the books they need while trying to respect their budgets.
One solution, adopted by UNCG this year, is Barnes and Noble’s First Day Complete initiative. Marketed under the tagline “Inclusive and Equitable Access Solutions,” this program promises savings of up to 50 percent on course materials. Students who enroll for classes at UNCG are signed up to rent all non-consumable course materials at a flat rate by enrollment hour, which could represent significant savings for students who need multiple costly textbooks.
The program, however, applies to all of a student’s courses, so that courses with less expensive textbooks, such as English 101, end up costing students more. Students I spoke to had varying responses, including some who were surprised to find themselves automatically enrolled and others who found they had to opt out to avoid being charged for books they already owned. Students may opt out in UNCGenie before the deadline, now passed, of Aug. 29.
Students attempting to opt out are greeted with strong messaging: “While it is NOT [sic] recommended, students have the option to opt-out of this program and can purchase their course materials at a potentially higher price.” Notwithstanding this warning, any student whose textbooks average a cost of less than $60 per three-hour course would seem to have nothing to gain by remaining enrolled, particularly if they already own certain books or would prefer purchasing to renting. While First Day Complete advertises that students may purchase rented books during the return period, the added cost would need to be factored into the student’s decision on enrollment.
It is not lost on me or my colleagues, as students or as teachers, that access to textbooks is a major concern when considering equity in higher education. Ongoing efforts toward open access textbook resources are one response to the dramatic escalation in textbook costs, and First Day Complete is branded as a similar response. In the spirit of “inclusive and equitable access solutions,” I will offer some strategies I have picked up from my many years as a college student.
First, determine exactly what books you need. Textbooks are reissued in new editions frequently, and the changes may mean it is important to get the assigned edition. However, especially with books not published by academic publishers, such as literature required for English classes, edition may or may not matter. Books published more than 95 years ago are likely to be available for free online. Always consult with professors to make sure of exactly what version of a text you need.
Second, check with libraries. UNCG’s Walter Clinton Jackson Library may have copies available or even online access. In certain cases, students may access books through interlibrary loan. Public libraries may have certain books available, particularly non-academic publications such as novels.
Third, look for used copies. Many students re-sell their textbooks to stores like McKay’s in Greensboro, and if a book is frequently assigned at UNCG, you have a good chance of finding an inexpensive used copy there. You should also check online retailers. I make a habit of consulting bookfinder.com, a website that compares prices from most online used booksellers, including Amazon, AbeBooks and eBay.
Textbook access, like the broader question of college affordability, will continue to be a problem requiring innovative solutions. Whether First Day Complete proves to help alleviate access issues will be a question for undergraduates to answer, and ideally they will make their answers heard to administrators in the future. At the moment, I suggest keeping an eye open for the opt-out date for next semester and making a note to research all options to ensure the lowest cost to you.