Analyzing UC Davis textbook market

VENOOS MOSHAYEDI / AGGIE

UC Davis tackles textbook controversies, affordability

Handing over that credit card with a wince is the painful feeling many students have experienced when buying textbooks. While many campus bookstores across the country are for-profit corporations, the UC Davis Bookstore operates as a non-profit entity whose goal includes finding the tools for students to get the least expensive materials possible.

In fact, in the spring of 2010, UC Davis became the first university in the entire country to adopt a program students frequently use and appreciate today: price comparison services. This means that students don’t have to exclusively buy their textbooks from the UC Davis bookstore, but can buy from any vendor that offers the product at a price the student wants.

“We used to say that our mission was ‘to provide the tools of education at the lowest possible cost,’” said Jason Lorgan, the executive director of Campus Recreation, Memorial Union and UC Davis Stores. “Now we say, over the last 10 years or so, ‘we provide the tools of education at the lowest possible cost even if it’s not through us.’ We just want the students to have the lowest possible cost. It just seemed like the right thing to do, ethically.”

On the website, students can click on the “compare prices” button when searching for a particular textbook. Sometimes UC Davis books end up being the cheapest option, but sometimes those being sold through external vendors like Amazon can be cheaper.

“We’re able to do that because we operate our bookstore, profit is not our incentive,” Lorgan said. “If everyone thinks we have the highest price, and I think sometimes we have the lowest price, the only way I can prove that is to [demonstrate] this. So if you have five classes, and it shows three were higher [prices] and two were lower, maybe I can get those two sales. That was sort of the thought process that we went through […] just seemed like the right thing to do, ethically.”

UC Davis bookstores were actually sending so much business to Amazon that the corporate giant took notice.

“I got this phone call one day from Seattle and it’s like ‘hi my name is John Alexander from Amazon’ and I thought I was on a radio show or somebody was doing a prank call or something,” Lorgan said. “He said he noticed we were sending him all this business and why we are doing that, and I kind of went through [explaining the store’s mission] and he said ‘we’re interested in entering the college market and would you be willing to talk to us’ and ‘we want to open on college campuses.’”

And so not only did UC Davis become the first college in the country to adopt price comparison software for its students, but also the first in the entire world to open an Amazon location right in the middle of its campus store.

“So we did price comparison, we did Amazon, then we went big into rental which peaked a long time ago, it’s not as big as it was,” Lorgan said. “I guess the point that I’m trying to make is we’re always trying to come up with a new program.”

Despite UC Davis’ efforts to promote textbook affordability, the cost can still add up for students who are taking up to four or five classes a quarter. One way to get around the high cost for new books is to purchase rental books or used books.

“In general, I’m typically a little hesitant about buying books,” said Emily Hain, a fourth-year Spanish and agriculture and environmental education double major. “I feel like every quarter a lot of professors say you have to buy the textbook, and I’ve definitely bought textbooks and not used them really at all. That kind of frustrates me. So usually I’ll try to wait and see, and if the professor says it’s required, and especially if there’s going to be material on exams that comes from the textbook, I usually try to buy it used.”

Sometimes students find themselves spending money on textbooks that they open maybe once or twice for its class, leaving them feeling like they didn’t get their money’s worth out of the purchase. For Jennifer He, a second-year pharmaceutical chemistry major, this was the case when she took the popular class Nutrition 10: Discoveries and Concepts in Nutrition.

“For nutrition I don’t know if it’s just me or it’s for most people, but you don’t actually need the textbook,” He said. “You only need it for one assignment because [the professor] posts everything online and then before the exam there’s a review session and the PowerPoint that [has] all the information that’s going to be on the exam. I barely used the textbook except for that project.”

NUT 10 is an extremely popular class at UC Davis, with multiple thousands of students enrolling each academic year. While the workbook for this class has remained at a steady price of $54 since 2011 according to the author of the book and professor of the class, Dr. Liz Applegate, in an email, the book poses a predicament for students who rely on buying rental or used books.

There has been an air of controversy surrounding the textbook for NUT 10 for a number of years, with students, including He, not only wondering why it’s required, but why it’s formatted in a way that doesn’t allow them to sell it once the class is over.

“There’s only one assignment [in the book] and there’s like one extra credit, but that’s like [a few] pages from the textbook you have to rip out and hand it to the professor, so from that you can’t reuse the textbook,” He said. “For most of the textbooks I can resell them, but this textbook because you have to rip [the pages] out, you can’t reuse them. You just keep it to yourself, that’s the only way to do it. There’s obviously easier ways to do it, because even for the project, you don’t need the textbook, there’s like a form and then that’s all you need. We can easily print it out online.”

For every student who enrolls in NUT 10, a brand new textbook has to be purchased. It’s an example of a class at UC Davis where some students find the book a useful supplement while others who find it less helpful question why this book can’t be bought in cheaper formats. Although He didn’t find herself using the textbook much for the class beyond one assignment, Hain found the book a helpful supplement while she was taking the class three years ago.

“The book had a lot of really, I thought, valuable information for just doing well in the class,” Hain said. “It was easy to read, and I definitely used it a lot to study, and it had a lot of information I needed to do the assignments. I felt like it was very helpful to get the book to do well in the class, not just because it had this one assignment in it.”

For the most part, Hain believes the textbooks she’s bought in college have been advantages to her education. However, occasionally she realizes that she’s purchased a hard copy of a book when online versions are available. Online books, or e-books, have become increasingly popular the past few years, and even NUT 10 has recently offered one that Applegate claimed will be less costly than buying a hard copy. Applegate declined to comment further on the subject.

Since each student has their own learning style, the option of ebook opens the door for more affordable access to course content and a breadth of formats for students to choose from.

“I think textbooks can be really expensive and it deters students from wanting to buy them, it’s kind of preventing them from learning in a way,” Hain said. “If I see a book and it’s really expensive, it definitely makes me more hesitant to buy it, and I mean, my goal with my college experience is just to like learn and expand my knowledge. So I think if high costs of textbooks is preventing that, then it should be something that should be addressed.”

Lorgan noted that a lot of research has shown that students who have access to their content do much better in their coursework. While this may be well understood by researchers, textbook economics operate very differently than other types of books.

“[Textbook affordability] has been a pervasive problem for decades upon decades and because of the economics of it, it’s hard to solve a problem that has that supply demand imbalance,” Lorgan said. “Once you’re out of college you’re never going to buy a textbook again, so it’s not like a regular consumer product where you can sell it to everybody. You have such a small market.”

While UC Davis is making positive adjustments for its students by offering prices and formats of textbooks to fit a multitude of student preferences, these preferences keep changing and there is always growing room for improvement. Efforts toward equity can be seen through the various tools and resources available to students as well as textbook format shifts in classes with high enrollment like NUT 10.

“We just keep attacking it bit by bit because we realize how important it is,” Lorgan said. “It’s been such a longstanding problem that we hope will be eventually solved so we just keep attacking. As the industry changes we morph with the industry like the digital thing. We’re very dedicated to innovate our programs, to adapt to the changing marketplace.”

 

Written by: Marlys Jeane — features@theaggie.org