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an independent take on campus stores

It’s Time to Stop Profiting from Course Materials

[fa icon="calendar"] May 4, 2017 1:21:44 PM

Robert A. Walton

Written by Robert A. Walton

CEO, National Association of College Stores

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Too many college students can’t afford the cost of textbooks on top of tuition, fees, and living expenses. Independent campus bookstores are working hard to resolve this dilemma—through rentals, more used copies, various digital options, and helping faculty source open materials, among others—however, there’s one more significant step colleges and universities could take. 

What institutions could do is work toward decreasing or even eliminating their margins on the retail sale or rental prices charged to student customers in the campus store.


Higher-ed institutions inadvertently raise the barriers every time they add retail margins to the wholesale prices of course materials. In short, colleges and universities end up profiting from the core tools students need to be successful in the classroom, indirectly making it tougher for some students to succeed by pushing the price of materials beyond their means.

To some extent, course materials margins are already shrinking across the board as online competition and the availability of price-comparison apps for students help drive retail prices down. But they could be lower.

There’s not a lot schools can do to alleviate the wholesale costs of course materials set by publishers and distributors.

But if higher education institutions are truly serious about affordability and student success, they’ll start examining ways to get their margins on course materials as close to zero as possible. A handful of college and university bookstores have already started down this path by capping their margins.

For the rest, it’s time to get started. On most campuses, the bookstore is currently budgeted to produce a certain financial return to the institution. Shifting the store to a different sustainable model will take collaboration and improved technology tools for sourcing.

The institution’s administration and campus bookstore management should begin by working closely together to consider the school’s overarching goals for revenue, service, student access and affordability, and the impact those could have on the campus store. Setting realistic, mutually agreed-upon financial goals and expectations is a good place to start.

indiCo is developing solutions to assist stores and their institutions in making that transition. We are partnering with other specialists—most recently with Akademos for online textbook management and with Pearson for low-cost rentals of bestselling textbooks—to help campus stores reduce costs so they can charge students less.

Why is the cost of course materials important? Because we know some students skip buying or renting materials required for their classes due to price. Student Watch surveys conducted by OnCampus Research, the research arm of indiCo’s parent organization, have documented this trend for years.

In the most recent survey (October 2016), 16% of the almost 25,000 student respondents said they decided to do without at least one course material for the fall term, with 61% of them citing cost as the reason.

Without the required materials, most students run into trouble trying to complete their courses. They can’t do assignments or study information not covered in lectures. They have a hard time with class discussions or group work based on required materials. Students may also miss out on learning aids included in materials, such as self-quizzes that test for comprehension.

As a result, students earn lower grades, possibly even fail or drop the course. Ultimately, some students may not graduate on time or at all, compounding their financial burdens.

Even students who do buy or rent all their materials may struggle with the cost, borrowing more on loans or using grocery money to pay for them. That’s not a good situation.

Indisputedly, having access to all required course materials is critical to student success and persistence to graduation.

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