As student leaders at some of West Virginia’s colleges watch the price of attending their schools continue to rise, they are exploring alternative options to help offset the monetary burden for themselves and their classmates.
At the top of their list: textbook affordability.
“Dealing with tuition increases and trying to minimize that is very difficult, often it depends on state allocations [of funds] and other issues that are hard for us to address directly,” said Hunter Barclay, student body president at Marshall University. “With educational materials, textbooks, if we could address the cost of that on campus, that’s a way to make education more affordable for students — especially [at Marshall] where we have a lot of first-time college students.”
When Barclay and Hannah Petracca, Marshall’s student body vice president, were running for their positions last year, they decided textbook affordability should be a major focus of their time in office.
They began their mission with a basic first step: talking to students about how the price of textbooks affects their lives.
“We heard from students who said they’d register for classes and would drop them when they realized they couldn’t afford the materials, and others who considered dropping out if they can’t afford textbooks,” Barclay said. “We definitely knew there was a need, so we started meeting with different departments.”
Barclay said they quickly realized it was an issue many on Marshall’s campus were cognizant of — the library had an open textbook program already in place, some schools at the college directed students to programs for affordable textbooks and a handful of professors were informally utilizing ways for their students to access materials easier.
“We saw there were a lot of initiatives of people on campus who cared, but there wasn’t a unified place or system,” Barclay said. “... Our goal became trying to make this a [university-wide] effort by getting everyone we could involved.”
For three months, Barclay and Petracca researched textbook affordability initiatives at schools throughout the country. They talked to other leaders about what worked and what didn’t and they surveyed professors about the materials required for their classes.
At the end of their research, they landed on three alternatives to help promote textbook affordability: Cengage Unlimited, a digital subscription service that gives students access to all their course materials for $120 a semester; OpenStax, a nonprofit initiative ran by Rice University that provides peer-reviewed, open source textbooks for free in a digital format and for a low cost in print and Vital Source, a textbook rental service with lower-than-average rates.
Barclay and Petracca also explored other strategies, like urging professors to use older versions of textbooks that have the same material for a lower price, and encouraging them to set personal goals for expenses related to their courses each semester.
While the administration and staff at Marshall have been very supportive of Barclay and Petracca’s initiative, Barclay said there was some concern from professors in the beginning.
“They wanted to know, to make sure we don’t infringe on academic freedom, and that’s never something we intend to do,” Barclay said. “We never want this to become a concrete policy, but we want to make it a priority for professors. We want to make sure it’s something they consider when they design their courses.”
Barclay said their approach is less based on a cut-and-dry policy, and instead emphasizes changing the culture at Marshall regarding textbooks.
This isn’t a new movement for West Virginia colleges. In the past, student leaders and student body presidents at WVU, Marshall, Fairmont State University and other schools have campaigned and advocated for lower textbook costs.
The initiatives have most often been student lead and student driven, perhaps obviously so, according to Blake Humphrey, a former WVU student body president and current student at the WVU College of Law.
“As the students, we’re the ones who really notice how expensive these course materials are when you’re talking about taking five or six classes,” Humphrey said. “It’s been student led, and has not been done by flash and burn. It’s been done through compromise and education and relationship building.”
Through efforts at the student level, both Barclay and Humphrey have seen the conversation evolve.
“I remember talking to a professor once, a few years ago, who was really surprised when I told him how much students were paying for [materials in] his class,” Humphrey said. “I think a lot of the time, it just wasn’t something they considered. Now university administrators, provosts, presidents, deans, professors and legislators — they have this on their radar at least.”