New car buyers know the feeling of sticker shock, when their interest in a car hits the reality of its price. For college students, it is the sticker on their textbooks causing the shock, with book expenditures following tuition and fees as a major financial hurdle.
The fall semester at McLennan Community College starts Monday, and a visit to the college bookstore days earlier found some students discovering their first class assignment involved figuring out how to pay for their books.
For Louis Groth, 18, taking journalism and communications with plans of becoming a copy editor, the price tag of about $500 for two science textbooks and a Spanish text had him leaving empty-handed and on a search for more money to cover their cost.
Another bookstore visitor shook her head when asked about her experience in trying to buy her books, which she had left at the checkout counter for a return visit. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said.
Accounting student Brianna Knox was luckier, exiting with a small bag and a large expense. Inside were two lab manuals and one textbook totaling $430, a hefty cost for the 19-year-old Connally High School graduate working full-time at a local pharmacy. Asked about the cost of her books, she shrugged with the wisdom of a second-semester student.
“Financial aid helped out. Last semester, my books were more than $600,” Knox said.
She tries to buy used texts when possible, but noted ruefully there is not much return when reselling.
“You don’t get much back. … My college algebra book cost about $200 with the access code, but I got only $6 back,” she said.
Spending $600 a semester on books, the cost of, say, a basic washing machine or a new cellphone, is close to the $1,290 earmarked for books and supplies in the college’s estimate of annual expenses provided to incoming students.
It is a nearly universal problem for college and university students across the country, and MCC is far from unique. Lower tuition and shorter degree plans, however, make community college an option for students with limited finances, and both MCC administrators and board members have expressed their intent to keep college affordability a priority.
“The cost of information resources has been at the top of my radar screen for the last couple of years,” said Chad Eggleston, dean of arts and sciences. “It’s not just textbooks. We’re also talking about online (access) codes, lab supplies, a lot of things.”
A working group under MCC’s College Success Team is specifically looking at ways to help students with the high cost of textbooks and course materials.
“Some of our students are looking at the choice of paying the electric bill or buying the sociology text,” Eggleston said. “We want to provide the very best resources at the lowest cost to our students.”
Strategies range from making financial aid available early enough for students to buy books before classes start to creating course curricula that rely on free or inexpensive online content.
Student shifts to less expensive textbook options already are showing a small impact in MCC’s budget. The college’s $58.4 million budget for 2019-20, set for board approval on Tuesday, shows a $55,000 decline in bookstore revenue. Stephen Benson, vice president for finance and administration, attributed the drop to lower commissions from textbook sales and said it is part of a yearslong trend.
“It is hard to compete with Amazon these days as they have huge amounts of used textbooks,” he said.
Students also are pursuing options such as rentals, used books and open resource options online, he said.
MCC’s bookstore, in fact, sells used books, offers rentals and works with the school’s financial aid advances for some students to cover book purchases before classes start. Benson said MCC recently renewed its 10-year contract with Follett, which manages more than 1,200 collegiate bookstores across the country. Bookstore manager Leonard Nowaski did not return calls or emails for comment.
Some MCC faculty members are looking beyond physical textbooks for their students. For the last three years, associate professor of sociology Paula Unger and a colleague, inspired by Rice University-based nonprofit publisher OpenStax, have been relying on open source textbooks for their students.
Open source materials are created without copyright limitations to promote wide use. One advantage is that open source materials are often available over multiple platforms. Students can read online for free, download materials in PDF form or purchase or rent, Unger said. She then supplements her open source texts with online material and podcasts.
“It’s really worked well for us,” she said.
In a similar vein, English professor Nick Webb has been creating an online educational resources textbook for first-year English composition classes. Webb was one of 15 winning a state grant to fund his project and brings a distinct perspective. He once worked for a New York textbook publisher.
“I used to be the person who created the book. Now I’m the person who uses the book,” Webb said.
Creating a textbook takes a publisher an average of 25 people and three years, he said. He aims to lower text costs by making them more modular — instructors and students can use the sections they need rather than buy a one-size-fits-all text with extraneous material — and use student work, with their permission, as guides and examples for other students.
“We can, in effect, self publish,” he said. The working title for his English composition text is “Writing Is Easier Than You Think.”