The Direct Network

Really, Truly, Actually Required Reading

Posted by Lori Reese on May 7, 2018 5:30:00 AM
Topics: Higher Ed, course materials, course fee model

It only takes a small act of imagination to understand why an inclusive access textbook model — a single fee that includes books in the cost of tuition — serves students and faculty well.

Really, Truly, Actually Required Reading

Imagine you’re a college freshman. If you’re like 68.4% of new enrollees, you’ve arrived fresh from high school, and high school was synonymous with structure. Your day always started and ended at about the same time. You ate lunch when the bell rang. You went outside for your free period when another bell rang, and if you chose to cut class, there were consequences: You found yourself in study hall or detention, where you finished your homework for the day.

Now that you’ve arrived on campus, your life has become a dizzying array of options. You’ve discovered you can eat pizza every night of the week and no one will stop you. You can take naps, stay up all night, wear those short-shorts your mother hates. You can rush, pledge or go independent. You can take your advisor’s advice and get algebra out of the way, or you can put it off another year and take weight-lifting, yoga or 15th Century Japanese drama instead. You can oversleep Chemistry 101 — twice, three times even — and the professor lecturing your 100-student class won’t even notice. In fact, some students in the course say you can easily make up for the classes you miss as long as you have the textbook.

Wait. Stop. It would appear no one’s made it clear to you that acquiring textbooks is not actually optional. When you saw the $400 price tag on the required chemistry text, you were aghast. In high school, books were free. That’s how it should be. How could they possibly charge so much for a single book? You searched for a cheaper used copy online, but, for some reason, your professor wanted this exact edition and Amazon didn’t have one.  So, you thought to yourself, why bother buying it at all? You’re already paying for a lot of things you hardly use — like the library (where you’re unlikely to set foot until a teacher makes you) and the brand-new athletic complex (you’ve been meaning to go; your roommate loves it; maybe next semester when you take yoga …) If the textbooks mattered so much, wouldn’t they force you buy them?

Learning to handle choices is part of what it means to be a first-year college student, but for many students, the overwhelming array of options makes it hard to tell the difference between a choice and a requirement. The consequences of some bad choices are much worse than others. The pizza might lead to the “freshman fifteen,” the irregular sleeping hours might cost a few points on a test and rush might bring some disappointment and tears. However, skipping out on textbook purchases could mean losing entire classes. It could mean missing out on education.

In my decade-plus of college teaching, I’ve encountered students on a regular basis who told me, with only a trace of remorse, that they were unable to complete the required reading because they had not bought the book. You can tell students their grade depends on reading. You can give quizzes. You can emphasize from day one the importance of a particular text, but, as long as students have the idea that textbooks are an added cost and, as such, possibly optional, you will always have students who end up failing or withdrawing because they haven’t bought the book.

Now, imagine you’re teaching one of these classes. Faculty center courses around required reading. A good class discussion hinges on shared understanding of that reading. Lectures are prepared under the assumption that students will buy or rent the text. Watching students fall behind because they’ve failed to buy a book is not only heartbreaking, it can make the hours devoted to class prep feel like wasted effort.

For some reason, that word “required” doesn’t carry much weight with students confronted with high textbook costs, and for those who are already overwhelmed by other options, it seems to lack meaning altogether. You can add all the adverbs to the phrase you want, say the book is really required, definitely required, actually required … but some students simply won’t understand what that means until they are forced to buy the book.

Even those students who do buy the books grumble about the cost of the texts — sometimes rightly. Including textbooks in the cost of tuition makes excellent sense for these reasons:

  • It demonstrates to the student that textbooks are like tuition; they’re not optional
  • It allows students to qualify for deep discounts they would otherwise miss
  • It reduces faculty frustration
  • It helps keep that student who’s overwhelmed by options from slipping through the cracks

For all of these reasons, an all-inclusive model is likely to increase student and faculty retention. If your school has not begun to think seriously about an all-inclusive plan, it’s time to take a look.

Is a Course Material Fee Program Right? [White Paper]

About Lori Reese

Lori Reese is a writer and an educator with 20 years of experience in higher education teaching.

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