Washington News Bureau

Report: College online access codes are a “bad deal;” publishers say digital options cut costs

A new report on the cost of college textbooks said a push for online access codes for college course materials is leaving students with fewer options and added costs.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) said online access codes leave students unable to re-sell what they bought, an option available with traditional textbooks.

“Access codes are a bad deal,” PIRG Higher Education Campaign Director Kaitlyn Vetez said. “You should not have to pay to participate in class. Everyone should have an equal shot at an A.”

Nicholas Sengstaken is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and said he’s been hit with high costs for the access codes needed to submit quizzes and homework assignments.

"There was a $260 access code,” Sengstaken said. “Tailored to the school. I couldn't sell it. I couldn't rent it. Students are faced with the decision, do I purchase that textbook or do I buy food that month or do I pay my rent?"

The study looked at automatic billing plans for schools using online materials and said half the schools with those contracts did not disclose the discount offered to students, leaving them in the dark about whether they’re getting a fair deal.

Federal law requires the cost for online programs with automatic billing at colleges and universities to be lower than the competitive market and students must have an opt-out option.

Publishing companies like Pearson and Cengage have said online textbooks and other course materials cut costs and said the PIRG study doesn’t pain the whole picture.

"The trajectory is more affordable pricing, not more expensive materials,” Senior Vice President of Strategy and Business Operations for Pearson Nik Osborne said.

Groups like the Association of American Publishers and the National Association of College Stores said the average cost of course materials for college students dropped between 14 and 23 percent last year.

“The institution wants their faculty to have access to the best materials,” Osborne said. “They want their students to have access day one at an affordable price point."

Osborne said a faculty member determines whether to use online materials and whether that entails just a textbook or inclusive access.

“Inclusive access is really just a more affordable business model where publishers are partnering with the institutions to try and drive that affordability with students,” Osborne said. “The concept of being able to re-sell that doesn’t make a lot of sense given that it’s a license to use much like other software programs in the country.”

“We provide affordable options to students through rental, inclusive access and our industry-first subscription model,” a spokesperson for Cengage said in a statement. “These programs have saved students more than $125 million… It’s unfortunate the critics don’t acknowledge the impact these programs have made, and continue to make, in making course materials affordable and expanding student choice.”

PIRG is pushing for more colleges and universities to use open textbooks instead which are free openly licensed textbooks available to the public.