Inclusive access: Higher ed, feds disagree on how to improve course material affordability

"While the intent of this provision was ostensibly to provide students with lower-cost options for textbooks, that has not always been the reality," read a letter from the Department in its January correspondence on negotiated rulemaking.

The Biden Administration has fought hard over the last four years in higher education to cultivate better access and affordability practices, intimidate predatory for-profit institutions, and alleviate the student debt burden. However, the Department of Education’s latest step to empower students is drawing mixed reactions from higher ed leaders and faculty.

Last month, the Department began its first of three negotiated rulemaking meetings seeking to eliminate inclusive access, an Obama-era regulation that sought to provide students in a given academic course with all required textbooks and materials at a “below market rate” value on the first day of class. All fees would be bundled into tuition costs, effectively making them expendable thanks to Title IV financial aid. Proponents of the 2016 ruling argued it would save low-income students the time, money and energy needed to find competitively priced textbooks.

As ideal as inclusive access sounds, the Department argues it’s a model pushed by textbook publishers to wholesale digital materials to entire classes, stripping students of choice. Some organizations believe that inclusive access’ “below market rate” is misleading because it only takes into account the price of full-priced print textbooks without considering other digital materials and used, borrowed and rented physical copies.

“While the intent of this provision was ostensibly to provide students with lower-cost options for textbooks, that has not always been the reality,” read a letter from the Department in its January correspondence on negotiated rulemaking.

Faculty that consent to their courses following the inclusive access model automatically enroll every student into the program, which has led to some students reportedly being blindsided by the costs of course supplies that they did not purchase themselves.

Mike Moore, an academic researcher with over 13 years of experience in the college bookstore industry, believes the department’s fixation on protecting student choice is leading them to overlook the benefits inclusive access has reportedly created. The Association of American Publishers found a 57% decline in student spending on course materials over the past decade in the June 2023 report. He also pointed to his own independent academic research that found programs providing early access to course materials have increased completion rates for Black and adult learners.

“We know that [the student choice] model from the research and the literature that’s out there, that students are either not buying their course materials for the cost,” Moore says. “Materials in those models have prevented students from being able to follow their dreams or choose the major that fulfills their passion in life.”

Moore is also an affiliate research assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire. An open letter he wrote to the Department asking it retain its current rules on inclusive access has garnered 72 signatories from 59 institutions.

However, not all faculty are on board. The fact that inclusive access programs only provide students with digital textbooks worries professors who believe their students’ learning will suffer without print editions. Some studies have found that learning via digital mediums causes learning comprehension to suffer.

“[I]n light of the pedagogical downsides of these policies, universities should not be striking a bargain with publishers to improve their bottom lines while compromising student learning,” said Robert Ballingall, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Maine, according to The Maine Campus. “If the goal is to improve student access to course texts, universities should better subsidize their bookstores to allow them to lower the purchase price of texts in paper copy.”

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Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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