Disclaimer: Alyssa Bello is a friend of the writer.
Three weeks into the semester, Alyssa Bello, a Saint Peter’s junior, was informed by her math professor that in order to hand in her work, she would have to purchase an $85 access code.
Bello was faced with a conundrum: she couldn’t afford the code, but it was too late to drop the class.
“I tried to work something out with my professor and the department, but everyone I would contact took a while to get back to me,” she said. “It was frustrating. I was upset because I thought I was going to miss out on a requirement for me to graduate.”
Bello eventually managed to pay for the code with help from a friend, but she isn’t the only Saint Peter’s student who struggles with paying for required course materials.
According to the Saint Peter’s website, the projected cost students will spend on required books and supplies each year is around $1000.
National trends reveal that textbook rates have rapidly increased throughout the years. This mostly because book publishers know that textbooks are required, and therefore, consumers have few other options. According to Mark Perry, a finance and business professor at the University of Michigan, “[Textbook prices] have all been going up at a much faster rate than any other consumer product.”
Out of 31 Saint Peter’s students surveyed, only 12 students responded that they regularly buy textbooks. The remaining 19 students stated that they look online for free pdfs, share with friends, rely on books on reserve in the library or simply go without. All cited the price of the textbooks as an obstacle.
“I work to pay my tuition and rent,” said Yasmeen Pauling, a senior. “Any extra money goes to necessities, and college books aren’t a necessity to my well-being. The cost is outrageous, and most of the time they aren’t used at all.”
Some of the students who responded that they regularly buy textbooks still believe that the price isn’t worth it.
“I do buy textbooks but every semester I regret it because I’ve noticed professors rarely use them,” said senior Jayson Ildefonso. “Why do I need to buy a book to tell me what the professor is there to tell me?”
Students aren’t the only ones questioning whether textbooks are really necessary. Many Saint Peter’s professors have begun using alternate teaching methods in the classroom. Among them is Christopher Durante, a theology professor, who only assigns documents that can be found for free online.
“I realize that students already have a lot on their plate financially,” he says. “This way, there’s no issue of them not being able to afford any textbooks. That prevents some students from doing the readings, which would then negatively impact their education. I chose to take this route to make it affordable and more accessible.”
However, many professors continue to employ traditional learning methods. One such professor is Alain Sanders, who requires a textbook for all of his political science classes. “A college level education is a reading education,” he said in an email interview. According to him, students rarely do the readings even when he posts articles for free on Blackboard— and therefore, the problem is not the cost of textbooks but the fact that many students chose not to read at all.
Despite this, Sanders does believe that the university can— and should— seek avenues to provide reading materials free of charge or at highly subsidized rates. This could be done through donations from corporations, the government or alumnae.
“There is nothing that stops colleges and universities, students and interested donors to start activating for such programs,” he said. “Instead the relevant parties seem to be more enamored with...purchasing computerized wizardry that is programmed to be addictive...and conveys information less efficiently to the brain. The societal cost is a less well-educated population.”
Saint Peter’s students aren’t the only ones who find textbook costs to be a source of financial stress. The issue is so pervasive that in May 2019, governor Phil Murphy approved legislation that “requires institutions of higher education to develop open textbook plan.”
Open textbooks are usually published by nonprofits or universities, rather than being published by commercial publishers.
“Open textbooks are created by professors, edited, and then put online. Once you put it out there, anyone can use it,” said Saint Peter’s librarian Daisy Decoster, who has made it her mission to educate faculty about their options.
According to Decoster, open textbooks are part of a larger “open education” movement, which seeks to make “higher education equally accessible to all.”
As for Bello, she hopes that open textbooks are something that Saint Peter’s administration and professors will continue to pursue to relieve the financial burden from students. “I think every school should advocate for this,” she said. “It’s for the people.”