Elizabeth Stice, PhD is Associate Professor of History at Palm Beach Atlantic University.
Once upon a time, universities used to run most of their own facilities and on-campus services. Today most universities outsource many of their facilities and on-campus services. The majority of U.S. college campuses have a cafeteria run by Aramark, Sodexo, or Compass Group. Universities also outsource custodial work, landscaping, and maintenance. And, of course, the campus bookstores that charge students hundreds of dollars for textbooks are also typically outsourced. Follett alone operates 1,200 campus bookstores. While outsourcing contracts have raised concerns about worker exploitation on campus, faculty should also be concerned about the potential exploitation of students by the college bookstore.
When the campus bookstore is run by interests outside the school, student interests are not a priority. One easy way that this can be seen is in the push for digital textbooks in the classroom. Publishers and campus bookstores continue to promote semester-long digital access as “better for students,” who, they claim, prefer digital books and benefit from savings. These claims reflect mainly self-interest by publishers and/or an ideology of technopoly. Though young people are “digital natives,” they do not prefer digital content for the classroom. Not only are students tired of reading on screens, claims of “lower prices” for digital textbooks are also dishonest because while students are paying less than the alleged market value of textbooks, they are also getting far less than previous generations. Students exchange their money but they do not receive a good, only a temporary service—a digital textbook is provided online for limited time. Many digital textbooks cannot be downloaded and they can almost never be printed. Access ends with the semester.
Digital access is not ownership and it is a way that students are being strung along for services when they should be receiving something more. Students cannot access these books later in college, or life, to use as a resource. For some classes leasing the books may seem just fine, but there are many books that students would like to consult again later and would benefit from having on hand. And the more difficult the subject, the more important it is to have the format best-suited to learning (print). Neither can students resell what they never possessed. The elimination of the resale market will have a negative impact on students in the long run. As the subcontracted bookstores continue to push digital content, and incentivize it for universities, it is increasingly difficult for students to get books in other formats.
At some schools, students in certain classes have no choice to get books from other places. College textbook publishers are increasingly convincing colleges to adopt “inclusive access.” In this model, the entire class has digital course materials, which appear on the first day of class and disappear after the last, are arranged through the bookstore, and are included with tuition. This is often easier and cheaper than students finding the books themselves, but it eliminates the independence of the student as a consumer and, again, eliminates the possibility of ownership. Inclusive access is facing legal challenges for the monopolistic threat it poses to independent bookstores, but we should also be concerned about the ways it narrows options for our students. It is not wrong to rent books or to offer digital access to books as an alternative to ownership, but it is unethical to deny students the opportunity to own their learning materials.
Most significantly, digital textbooks can detract from the educational experience in other ways. Most students simply do not learn as well from digital content as they do from traditional print books, which can also be rented. And while students struggle to manage healthy amounts of screen time, mandating that more of their resources be on screens is not helpful. Excessive screen time is linked to many negative health outcomes and the screens themselves often become a distraction in the classroom. What discounts are worth inferior learning and increased health risks? Lower prices should not be the only consideration in learning environments. Bookstore recommendations should not determine how faculty choose to assign books, student interests should.
In our country, college has been a pathway to intellectual discovery and a certain amount of financial stability. Today’s undergraduates are increasingly being cornered into ongoing financial commitments for everything, while they never take possession of anything. So much of today’s music and entertainment is accessed through services which cease as soon as the payments do. While digital textbooks provide ease of access on the first day of class for students whose bills are fully paid, students who struggle with bills may find themselves cut off from the classroom materials. The advantage of potential ownership is actual possession. And when students are denied the ability to own the textbooks, through things like “inclusive access,” faculty aren’t just choosing to assign “cheaper” books, we are selling our students to the publishers. College is not just about having a book in your hand, but when you can only lease the learning materials, you can leave a semester pretty empty-handed.
It is easier to outsource the college bookstore than to run it with university staff. It may even be wiser. But when university faculty and/or administrators decide on course materials based on publisher-oriented bookstore recommendations, rather than student interests, the mission is at stake. Students come to college and learn to ponder the “good life” even as they prepare to take hold of it. Universities are traditionally non-profit, they are intended to exist for the mutual benefit of all involved, but when they outsource to for-profit organizations, we should be wary of subcontracting away the souls of our institutions. College bookstores are right that digital access is often cheaper for students, but they are wrong to suggest that it is better. Online learning materials are not always optimal for student learning, for many reasons. And when our model of classroom education offers nothing more than temporary digital access to learning materials, we undercut the value of the material and we are threatening what we hope will be some of the lasting benefits of the learning for our students.