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College students’ latest headache? Digital access fees on top of rising textbook prices

The planned merger of publishing giants McGraw-Hill and Cengage could mean even higher costs, consumer advocates, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin are warning.

University of Illinois senior Jevone Mayes of Chicago tries to save money on textbooks but says online access codes are unavoidable.
University of Illinois senior Jevone Mayes of Chicago tries to save money on textbooks but says online access codes are unavoidable.
Provided photo

As a newly arrived freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Kailey Brack stood in the aisles at the University Book Store, staring in disbelief at the plastic-wrapped bundle for her intro-level English course.

The bundle, required by her professor, included a textbook, a workbook and a writing guide, along with an online access code. The price: $230.

Brack, 19, of Chicago, walked out in shock.

“I didn’t even buy it that day,” she says. “I was, like, ‘This can’t be right.’ ”

But the price was correct.

Brack ended up trekking back to the book store and making the painful purchase, as well as spending about $165 more for books and lab materials for her other two classes — for a total of $395 for this semester, which Brack calls “overwhelming.”

As college students have headed back to class this fall, they’ve been grappling not only with textbooks that cost more than twice what their parents paid, but they’re also increasingly faced with having to buy online access codes in addition.

And now the proposed merger next year of two of the textbook industry’s biggest players — McGraw-Hill and Cengage — could end up squeezing students even more, consumer advocates warn, though the companies say that won’t happen.

The college textbook landscape is far different from when the parents of today’s students were in college, and printed textbooks were less expensive and often resold again and again.

Textbook publishers now push digital access codes through which students can get online reading material, take quizzes and even submit homework.

Unlike printed textbooks, a digital access code can be used only once. That means students can’t do the digital equivalent of reselling their textbooks when they’re through with them in hopes of getting back some of what they paid, says Nicole Allen, director of open education for the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, a group funded by university libraries. The group has asked the Justice Department to block the merger on antitrust grounds.

Students who don’t buy an access code that’s linked to homework could forfeit as much as 15 percent toward their final grade, according to Allen. As a result, the publishers have “a captive market,” she says.

“You have to buy it in order to do the work,” says Brack’s fellow freshman, Riley Olson of Cambridge, Wisconsin, who spent about $300 this semester on books and access codes.

Riley Olson, 18, is sitting at desk in his dorm room at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, looking at his computer. He says he spent about $300 on textbooks and access codes this semester.
Riley Olson, 18, of Cambridge, Wisconsin, spent about $300 for textbooks and access codes for his classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this semester.
Provided photo

Textbook giants plan merger

The Cengage and McGraw-Hill merger, announced in May and expected to go through in early 2020 if the Justice Department doesn’t move to block, would leave the new company and Pearson as the two giant players in the industry.

The textbook industry in the past was “very aggressive in raising prices,” says Michael E. Hansen, chief executive officer of Cengage, who would head the merged company.

But putting such a heavy burden on students was a mistake, Hansen says: “You cannot run a successful strategy if you don’t have the benefit of the end-user in mind.”

He says that even though the digital materials can’t be resold, they ultimately will save students money.

According to figures from the National Association of College Stores, student spending on course materials has begun to drop — from an average of $701 a year in the 2007-08 school year to $415 in 2018-19.

Last year, Cengage launched a Netflix-style subscription model: Students pay a flat rate of $120 a semester and get access to 22,000 online products. McGraw-Hill has a similar subscription service.

‘We’re broke college students’

Chicagoan Jevone Mayes, 21, a senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, tries to save as much as possible on books. This semester, she scored a sign-language textbook, normally $70, for $17 used. Another time, she split the cost of a book with a classmate.

But with access codes, Mayes says, that’s impossible. She’s annoyed about the $60 she had to pay for an access code for a geology class not in her major.

“We’re broke college students,” Mayes says. “We don’t need to be spending all this money when it’s so expensive to go here already.”

Some academic innovators, such as OpenStax at Rice University in Houston and the Open Textbook Network in Minneapolis, encourage professors to use their free, open-source materials to help bring costs down for students.

Last spring, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, introduced the Affordable College Textbook Act, which would authorize grants to create and expand the availability of open textbooks nationwide. Durbin says having free materials would help students more than the planned corporate merger will.

“I’m skeptical that consolidating market power in the textbook industry is in the best interests of students in the long term,” Durbin says. “We’ve seen what happens when there is too little competition in this industry — prices soar, leading to more student debt.”