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.
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.