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Digital Textbook Codes As Costly As Traditional Course Materials

Textbook costs are a sore subject for many college and university students, with increasing textbook prices prompting students to look for less expensive options. Digital textbooks may be seen as a cost-friendly alternative, but the access code model commonly used by publishers can make this option just as pricey for students.

That is the main analysis within “Access Denied: The New Face of Textbook Monopoly,” a new report from Student PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups). In prior reports, Student PIRGs found that nearly 50 percent of students factor in textbook costs when deciding which and how many courses to take, while 33 percent use financial aid to purchase their textbooks. The latest study investigates and compares the costs of online access codes in college classes.

The codes, in short, are unique serial numbers that allow access to online learning materials like digital books, study guides, homework assignments, quizzes and tests. Once a code is registered, it becomes null and cannot be used by other students. According to Student PIRGs, textbook publishers have shifted to the access code model in response to the widespread availability of free, open-source learning materials. Student advocates worry that the prominence of digital access codes make it harder for students to use cost-cutting alternatives, such as sharing textbooks, since the codes are typically tied to individual student accounts.

The new report analyzes the assigned course materials from 99 courses in 10 majors at 10 colleges and universities – including a mix of private, public, two-year and four-year programs.

Key findings include:

  • Across institutions and majors, almost one-third (32 percent) of the courses used access codes;
  • At the campus bookstores, the average cost of an access code was $100.24 for an unbundled textbook; and
  • Campus bookstores only offered 28 percent of all required access codes in unbundled form, while publishers offered 56 percent in unbundled form, “despite federal law requiring materials to be sold separately,” according to the report.

In response to these findings, Student PIRGs concluded that “access codes are an alarming trend for students.”

“Online access codes are the new face of the textbook monopoly,” said Ethan Senack, a higher education advocate at the Student PIRGs, in a prepared statement. “In one swoop, the publishers remove a student’s ability to opt-out of buying their product, eliminate any and all competition in the market and look good doing it because the codes are cheaper than publisher’s exorbitantly priced textbooks.”

To learn more, the full report is available on the Student PIRGs site.

About the Author

Sri Ravipati is Web producer for THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at [email protected].

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