The Cost of Going Digital: Are Textbooks Dead?

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Discounted, used books may be hard to come by in coming years as school administrators look into digital options for course material. Photo by Sharon Armstrong.

Discounted, used books may be hard to come by in coming years as school administrators look into digital options for course material. Photo by Sharon Armstrong.

armstrong_SharonSan Antonio college students, college textbook stores owners and the Alamo Community College District are apparently heading for a collision this year due to the recent approval by Alamo College trustees of what the San Antonio Express-News calls a “controversial approach to bringing instructional materials” to students.

Currently, the Alamo District Colleges Administration is putting in place plans to charge students for all required course materials, both digital and print, as part of their registration and tuition fees. These instructional materials (IMs) will be provided and delivered by Follett Higher Education Group Inc, the wholesale distributor that manages all of Alamo Colleges’ on-campus college textbook stores.

Independent textbook store owners are concerned that the new course material fee structure will reduce student choice and sales. Photo by Sharon Armstrong.

Independent textbook store owners are concerned that the new course material fee structure will reduce student choice and physical textbook sales. Photo by Sharon Armstrong.

Digital materials will be delivered electronically via Follett before the start of each semester. Any physical textbooks included in the package will be available for pick up at the on-campus book store.

According to Jo Carrol Fabianke, vice chancellor for academic success at Alamo Colleges, the aim of the initiative is to help students where they often take their hardest hits– in their wallets.

“We are very focused on student success,” she said. “The aim of the project is to reduce the costs of materials for students, and our goal is for our students to get the most effective materials, at the lowest cost, and to have them on their very first day.”

Harris Smithson, owner of L&M Bookstore, disagrees:

“Their aim is to completely corner the market in text books and instruction materials,” says Smithson.

“No outside competitor will be able to provide books to the school, because all sales will go through the college. If they incorporate this into their tuition fees, it will eliminate any competition for the sale of books. Students won’t be able to get their books elsewhere, and, without competition, students will end up paying more.”

The cost of the proposed fee has not yet been set.  According to Fabianke, it is expected to vary from course to course. Steps to implement the new program are scheduled to begin this March, in preparation for the 2014 fall semester.

It’s no secret that cost of a college education can be a high one. A look at the ever escalating price of college textbooks over the last decade, and the rising amount of debt that most students carry into their post academic world as an unwanted graduation gift makes that very clear.

Many students are already forced to use multiple strategies to offset the high cost of text books.  So, the question is – will the proposed program be a good deal for San Antonio students?

By working closely with college faculty members, Fabianke says that the college will “identify the most effective possible methods of providing the best IMs to students at the lowest possible cost.”  But she also describes the plan as a ‘work in progress,” and admits that there has been strong “push-back” from faculty members.

Discounted, used books may be hard to come by in coming years as school administrators look into digital options for course material. Photo by Sharon Armstrong.

Discounted, used books may be hard to come by in coming years as school administrators look into digital options for course material. Photo by Sharon Armstrong.

“The materials used by our faculty members are very important to them,” Fabianke said.  “And we all know that.  This has to be faculty led, and they are, by nature, questioners. The unknown is not something that any of us deals with well. They want to know exactly what they will be dealing with, and with something new like this we can’t know that.”

One concern being raised by faculty members is whether students have easy access to laptops, e-book readers, and Wi-Fi. Another is whether or not any the discussions currently taking place between the Alamo Colleges Board of Directors and faculty members will have any actual affect on the new policy. A third is that students will not be able to ‘opt out’ of the plan, if they find cheaper options elsewhere, such as in second-hand bookstores, or open-resources.

“We have talked about that extensively,” said Fabianke. “We believe that Wi-Fi is available across San Antonio for a very minimal amount, and we have wireless all over our colleges.  And, of course, Financial Aid  can be used to buy devices. While there might be a few students who could do better, we believe this will be better for the mass. Faculty members can opt out if they have open-source material, but if they don’t, and there is material that forms part of the course that has to be purchased, we will attach that to the IM cost and each student will have to pay for it.”

And, of course, students will be able to print a hard copy of their digital textbooks on campus – once again for a fee.

“Text books are expensive, we all know that,” said Richard Hubbard, president of the San Antonio College Student Government Association.  “I can see different views, because there are a lot of different sides. I am giving input where I know the students have to be watched out for. I couldn’t say it’s a good or bad idea, because it hasn’t been fully vetted out yet.”

All of this raises a number of important questions, not least of which is, are e- books really that much less expensive than their hard-copy cousins?

Well, as a general rule, yes. But, there are differences.

E-books aimed at entertaining, rather than educating, can be very inexpensive. You can purchase a digital edition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, complete with the original Strand illustrations by Sidney Paget, for less than $1 at the Amazon’s Kindle Store – a fraction of the cost of the actual physical book. If you sleuth a little, you can even find your Baskerville Hound free on-line.

Pictured on Kindle: “Media and Culture: Mass Communication in the Digital Age.” Photo by Sharon Armstrong.

Pictured on Kindle: “Media and Culture: Mass Communication in the Digital Age.” Photo by Sharon Armstrong.

Buying an e-book is fast, it’s cheap, and it can be delivered to your electronic device wherever there is Wi-Fi.

But, while the same convenience applies to shopping online for digital versions of college textbooks, are digital textbooks always cheaper?

A quick look at the Kindle Store would indicate not.

For example, a brand-new, and strangely apropos copy of the ninth edition of Richard Campbell’s “Media and Culture: Mass Communication in the Digital Ageis priced on Amazon.com  at over $100. The digital edition will set you back about $80 if you buy it outright and almost $50 if you decide to rent it.

The used hard-copies of the book for sale are comparable in price to the $80 digital edition, but with the added advantage that you don’t need an electronic device to read them.  Adding the cost of printing your own hard copy, the saving may be hard to find.

It seems that e-book does not necessarily mean “bargain book.”

San Antonio Discount Textbooks. Photo by Sharon Armstrong.

San Antonio Discount Textbooks. Photo by Sharon Armstrong.

Pat Puig, owner of San Antonio Discount Textbooks, is in the bargain book business.  Puig says that while the one-stop one-fee proposal being put forward Alamo Colleges claims it will benefit students by providing all the necessary class materials at the best price, the program will effectively bar students from being able to make their own choices, and therefore not necessarily save them money at all.

“Students traditionally pay for materials at the place of their choice,” said Puig. “They go to Amazon.com. They go to the Twig. They go to a local bookstore like me, or L&M down the street. They rent them, and they sell them back to bookstores, and they can choose where and how to spend their money. Professors can tweak material if it is in the best interests of their students, or let them work with older editions, if still sufficient for the course of study. This circumvents all of that, and only enriches Follet.”

If the official book is the newest edition, then everyone will be paying for the newest edition, and that suits publishers. Since the proposal does not have an opt-out clause, it’s basically if you want this course, then you are going to pay this amount for it, and we provide all the materials, so that suits Alamo Colleges.”

Pat Puig, owner of San Antonio Discount Textbooks

Pat Puig, owner of San Antonio Discount Textbooks

The net result is that the market place for any independent bookstore simply ceases to exist. There is no market because students won’t have the ability to make their own purchase decisions; those decisions will be made for them. I honestly can’t imagine how this will be popular with students.”

Obviously teaching institutions like Alamo College are under no obligation to make sure that that independent college textbook stores stay in business, and education, from kindergarten to university level will continue to be shaped by developments in technology. Just look at WGU Texas.

And, according to Fabianke, the program will be monitored closely for results.

“I think in education we are reluctant to venture out into something without knowing exactly how it will work out,” she said.

“But… if you want significantly different results you are going to have to do things significantly different. And what we are venturing into, is trying to do just that. Is it definitely going to work? No. Are we going to going to say that we are going to do it forever? No.  We are obviously going to evaluate this on an on-going basis. If it doesn’t work, we won’t stay with it.”

By that time, according to Smithson and Puig, their businesses might very well be things of the past. It seems that only time will tell. Time … and test scores.

 

Sharon Armstrong is a Scottish freelance journalist currently based in San Antonio and New Orleans. She has worked as a writer, photographer, producer and DJ for media outlets in Greensboro, Edinburgh, New Orleans, Austin (Edible Austin), and (now) San Antonio.

 

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4 thoughts on “The Cost of Going Digital: Are Textbooks Dead?

  1. I’d like to add a couple things gleaned from my own experience.

    –That $80 used textbook can be found online for $5 or less.

    –If students are forced to buy books this way, they won’t be able to sell–or even give–their used ones to other students, so that’s more money down the drain.

    –The fee for printing out a textbook would be close to what a new book would cost ON TOP of what the electronic edition costs.

    I don’t see how any students are going to be saving money, but I can certainly see how some non-students stand to gain quite a bit from this new policy.

  2. Yes, unfortunately, a bookstore could very well go out of business due to technological advances. Look at what happened to Blockbuster! Times are changing and while an e-book won’t solve all problems for students, neither will doing “business as usual”. There is not one perfect answer or solution, but it’s 2014 and things must be done differently in higher education to keep up. While it very well is possible to get a $5 book online, it’s also possible to have to buy a book for $300+. In college, I recall professors using much more rich, valuable teaching tools and resources than a textbook.

  3. One struggle with community college is you have too many options, and there is little resources for guidance. I remember having peers that dropped a class because they didn’t purchase a book, or buy the right calculator. Rarely did I see people use financial aid preferring to pay cash for everything. There have always been resources to purchase books, or a computer, that are often not used. Having it as part of registration and tuition although more costly to local business, will help more students in the long run. Ideally guidance counselors could play a more active role mentoring students, emailing and calling, but resources aren’t there, it’s a lot of people. I remember a teacher called my grandmother because I left my book in class, when I got home she told me I had to go back, no exceptions.

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