A few months ago, the University of California, Davis made the news when it was announced that the campus will soon be trying out a relatively new model of textbook and course-material provision. The new program will be called Equitable Access, and it promises to dramatically decrease the cost of access to textbooks and other course materials for UC Davis (UCD) students by making campuswide deals with publishers and spreading costs uniformly across the student body. I contacted Jason Lorgan, UC Davis’s Executive Director of Campus Stores, to ask some questions about the new program.

books with money inside

What problem(s) do you hope to solve with the Equitable Access (EA) program?

Primarily, we are trying to address equity. Significant inequity exists with student access to course materials today, primarily due to the highly variable cost of textbooks. We are trying to make costs both predictable and consistent for all undergraduate students. We are trying to ensure that students arrive to campus with access to their course materials already in place, versus the current default which is to have to secure access upon arrival. We hope to minimize confusion related to course materials by providing a personalized email to each student containing links to all of their course materials — versus having to wait to hear from each professor, collect the syllabus, or visit multiple websites to figure out what is needed. Finally, we hope to make financial aid for textbooks cover all a student’s costs. Currently, financial aid offices use the campus average to calculate book costs. This means that the students whose materials amount to more than the average do not receive sufficient institutional support to cover those costs. By setting a fixed amount, we can ensure the financial aid award will cover the costs for all affected students, not just those who would otherwise pay the average or less than the average.

Suppose I’m coming to UCD this year for my first year of college. What can I expect my experience with this program to be?

EA is planned to go into effect in fall of 2020. So this fall, students will arrive with the same model in use on the vast majority of campuses: they will be left on their own to source their books from wherever they can and hope they have enough money to cover the expense. If they add or drop a course, they will need to manage their course materials accordingly with refunds, new purchases, etc. Beginning in fall of 2020, students will receive an email with links to the digital content and information on what print content they may need and guidance on where to get it. Each email will be personalized based on that student’s schedule. When students add or drop, the University will turn off access to the online content in the courses they have dropped and send them links to access the content for the courses they added. The burden will be on the University to make it easier for the student in Fall of 2020.

How is UCD preparing to meet the staffing and infrastructure demands of this new program?

Meetings with many different departments across the campus have taken place to prepare the infrastructure for this program. Staff who manage our current textbook programs will be used to manage this program as well. Software, currently in use for Inclusive Access (IA), is being enhanced to manage a much higher volume of activity, and to also manage print and Open Educational Resource (OER) distribution when those materials are adopted.

What’s the difference between your “Equitable Access” (EA) program and the increasingly-popular “Inclusive Access” (IA) programs?

Our campus pioneered the Inclusive Access program in 2014, a model that has now spread to well over 500 campuses. Both of these programs spread the cost of course materials more thinly across a larger number of students. The fundamental difference between IA and EA is that IA is organized at the course level, while EA is at the campus level. IA has variable pricing for each course and EA offers a fixed price per term regardless of what course you are taking.

To what degree (if any) does your program limit the ability of faculty to decide which books they’ll adopt for their courses?

Academic freedom is protected in this program. If faculty select material from a publisher with which we have not come to a pricing agreement, they can still adopt that material — the adoption process will be the same as it is today. Students will have to search for the material at a price they can afford, or do without it, as they do today. This is similar to health insurance. Doctors can prescribe any drug they want, but perhaps only 90% of drugs are in a health plan’s formulary. So, for those 90%, the standard copay is charged. If non-formulary, patients have a higher copay or pay full retail. Our program is intended to work similarly.

What percentage of UCD-required texts or other materials do you anticipate you will be able to provide in the first semester of this program?

Our goal is to provide well over 90% of the required content at program launch in fall of 2020. Publisher price negotiations will determine our ability to meet that number. We hope publishers will see the benefit of this program and will provide pricing that will allow their content to fit into the pricing goals of this program. Early interactions with our publisher partners have been encouraging.

What kind of leverage or market power does UCD bring to the table when negotiating with publishers for inclusion of their content in the Equitable Access program?

I already mentioned our track record with IA. We have proven to publishers that we can innovate the course materials model and export the program beyond UC Davis. That definitely provides us some ability to negotiate a new model. Additionally, our program will result in an increase in revenue for nearly all publishers, primarily because although we pay a lower price, we pay it every term — as opposed to current practice, in which we pay a very high price only when a new edition comes out and then mostly purchase used or rental copies, which does not result in any revenue to the publisher.

What do you see as the most difficult challenges for the program, going forward?

We are in the middle of price negotiation with publishers and that is the most difficult part of this program. Our revenue will be fixed, but there is a risk that our expenses could go up dramatically as faculty react to the “all-you-can-eat” model of a fixed cost for students versus ordering à la carte as they do today. Achieving a threshold level of publisher participation is also a challenge. We aim to have well over 90% of required materials as part of our formulary.

What do you see as the most likely unintended consequences?

Faculty may react to the “all you can eat” model by adopting more books than they have in the past, driving the cost of the program higher.

How will you measure this program’s success?

By measuring the number of students participating. Students can opt out and stick with the current model if they wish. Students participating will show us whether we achieved our primary goal — creating equity when it comes to course materials access.

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


14 Thoughts on "UC Davis Experiments with a New Textbook Model: An Interview with Jason Lorgan"

Seems to me that the administration only has to go to the textbook manager and get the list of books submitted by the prof! Book reps have been doing this for years.
A greater service would be sending an e mail to students giving the price of beer at each retail outlet.

This article should be titled, “How campus bookstores are finding new ways to charge students and eliminate the secondary market”

As the cost of new published texts continues its inexorable climb, so follows the secondary market. It is no longer a guaranteed haven for low pricing.

“Equitable Access” strikes me as an odd name for this program. The cost of course materials tends to vary by discipline, so in effect humanities majors will be subsidizing the higher cost of course materials for STEM and nursing students. If I were a humanities major, that wouldn’t seem equitable to me.
Courseware wasn’t mentioned and I’m curious if it’s included in the fixed “Equitable Access” price. Courseware often significantly increases the cost of course materials. I can envision more instructors assigning it under the “all-you-can-eat” model. If using courseware is the only way to pass the class, students really don’t have the option of opting out.

I can certainly appreciate the comment you are making. This could be viewed as some students subsidizing other students course material costs, but that is extremely common in most aspects of Higher Education. Standardizing costs is one of the primary methods institutions use to increase equity. All majors pay the same rate for tuition, regardless of what that major costs to deliver. The desire behind the concept is to ensure students can choose a major regardless of their economic situation. The equity behind the program described is to make the same case for equity when it comes to course materials.
All students pay the same mental health fee, whether or not they access those services, so the services are available to all regardless of income level. All students are required to purchase or possess health insurance, which has the healthy students subsidizing the students accessing health care with costly conditions. All students subsidize most campus libraries through their tuition or fees, whether they access those services or not. Those who do not have children help subsidize the cost of those who do have children through the school taxes they pay.
One can disagree with the concept, but it is pervasive in Higher Education and the delivery of public services in general, and the goal is to create equity.
Finally, courseware is included in this program, if that is the content faculty deem best for their course.

Jason, thank you for the thoughtful reply. I had not thought of equity in that way (the cost of degrees at my institution varies widely due to additional “program fees” assessed by departments/colleges each semester).
I applaud efforts to increase student success, provide more equitable access, and reduce student costs. I agree with Jody that OER offer benefits that inclusive access doesn’t (zero cost to students, customizability, perpetual access, choice of formats, etc.) and hope OER will play a prominent role in your program. As you say, price negotiations with publishers will be the big challenge. Even if significant discounts are negotiated at the start, what motivation do for-profit companies have to keep prices low year after year? As publishers’ recent tactics squeeze the used textbook market and print rental market, students’ low-cost options become even more limited. Limited options usually don’t work in students’ favor.

This interview covers the positive aspects of inclusive access: convenient day-1 access to course materials for all students at a price far below the retail price of new textbooks.

However, none of the negatives aspects are discussed. Off the top of my head, here are a few:
–linking the inclusive-access course materials to a required digital homework platform that students cannot opt out of because they would then have no way to submit homework
–eliminating the possibility for students to buy much cheaper used textbooks or to share course materials unless they opt out, which is often difficult
–time-limited access to course materials (i.e., access to materials ends at the end of the semester)

Open educational resources offer the same positives as IA models and solve all the problems of the negatives. I hope UC Davis faculty members are provided assistance in finding high-quality OER that would meet their curricular needs rather than being steered toward the commercial publishers’ content as a default.

For a not-so-rosy story about inclusive access, see this article from Inside Higher Ed last February:
“The True Cost of Inclusive Access”

It is certainly appreciated that there is no perfect system related to course content delivery. Our desire is to make the system better than it is today. If students feel the current system is advantageous, and believe the current resale market is effective at controlling their costs, they are free to stick with the current system. Opting out is very simple for students to do. OER is embraced in this model. If faculty choose low or no cost content as the best choice for their course, it will lower the overall cost of programs such as Equitable Access. Finally, when students rent or share textbooks, their period of access is also limited, as it is with some digital content that will be in the EA program.

Of course, OER has downsides as well (and is by no means a “free” option–it’s an option that shifts the costs to people or entities other than the end-users of the resource).

Sadly, there are no cost-free options available, and, as Jason points out, there are no models that offer only upsides with no downsides. Having a diversity of models and options in the system seems like a fundamentally healthy arrangement to me.

I agree about the value of diverse models and options. But from a student perspective, open educational resources *are* a cost-free option. I have two sons in college — given the choice between free OER and low-cost inclusive access of equal quality, they’ll choose the cost-free option every time. They also appreciate that the PDF or EPUB of an open textbook isn’t harvesting reams of data about them — on inclusive access platforms, their actions are carefully tracked and monetized.

Don’t get me wrong. I hope UCD’s program is a huge success. I’ll be watching with great interest. I just think it’s important to be transparent about the downsides of different models and for institutions to minimize the downsides’ negative impacts on students.

This model is being developed to support the distribution of any content chosen by the instructors as the best resource for student success, including OER and library resources. Adoption of these materials will lower program expenses, which will directly result in lower program cost to students in future terms. Removing cost as a major factor in choosing course materials will allow faculty to return to making their selections based solely on quality of content.

To state the obvious: the cost of *creating* textbooks varies title by title, subject by subject, course by course. The range of that variation is an order of magnitude (say, $200,000 to $2 million). Higher development costs for a text may be incurred regardless of the size of the prospective market (say, 25,000 students vs. 2.5 million). By analogy, you are asking people to charge the same for a jet plane as they do for a bicycle. Good luck.

I think that the bottom line is this: ” Additionally, our program will result in an increase in revenue for nearly all publishers”. The only way that more money can go to the publishers is if more money is taken from the students. The model is designed to reduce variability by increasing the average cost to the students. That may be “equitable” but it is not one that should make most students happy.

No. Lorgan is at least partly right about publishers getting more out of this than is first apparent. They do this by eliminating print costs (perhaps 20% of total costs) and disintermediating the college bookstore (perhaps another 20%). And that’s before you wipe out the used book market–and used books cost more than the proposed digital books. At the price level Lorgan quotes, however, those savings may not be enough for the publishers to be able to continue to invest in creating and maintaining their products. Better to think of the price point as the first salvo in a long negotiation.

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