Thinking Critically About Inclusive and Equitable Access Programs

By | June 28, 2024

This post was contributed by Nathan Smith, a philosophy professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Houston Community College. From 2017-2022, he was the Open Educational Resources Coordinator at Houston Community College. He has been co-chair of the Instructional Materials Committee since 2012.

The college bookstore industry continues to expand its Inclusive Access programs across the country, with a growing number of campuses opting for Equitable Access programs (where every student pays a flat fee for all instructional materials, regardless of the courses they take). To better understand whether these programs are a good deal for students, I compared marketing claims with data on actual impact on student savings and student success.

The data I found shows that Inclusive Access programs can be beneficial for some instructors and programs that assign access codes, while Equitable Access programs are best suited to specialized programs with where all students are required to make the same textbook purchases. For the typical, diverse liberal arts and sciences college, both Inclusive and Equitable Access may actually increase costs to some students while reducing their choices, with little evidence of benefit to student success.

More information:

Do these programs save students money?

The short answer is that the programs may save some students money, but in the aggregate, students will probably spend more on textbooks under an Inclusive or Equitable Access model than under a traditional textbook model.

First, bookstores may use misleading data when they calculate estimated student savings under their programs. For instance, when Barnes & Noble advertises 35-50% savings on textbooks, it is comparing the cost of new, print textbooks to limited-term e-books offered under Equitable Access programs. When making an apples-to-apples comparison, the savings more likely to be 10-20% off similar titles.

When considered in the aggregate, students will likely pay more because they do not pay retail price today. Instead, students borrow copies from friends and family, seek low-cost vendors outside the college bookstore, or find pirated black-market copies of the material online. Florida Virtual Campus’s survey of students finds that some 88% of students engage in some kind of cost avoidance strategy. The National Association of College Stores, a bookstore industry group, estimates that students pay $285 in course materials per year for 8.7 courses, or around $33 per course. The typical Equitable Access agreement asks students to pay $20-25 per credit hour (or $60-75 per course), meaning it could double the aggregate amount students spend on textbooks.

One important exception: these programs do save students money when the course materials assigned include an access code, for example for an online homework system. If a student purchases the same materials outside an Inclusive Access or Equitable Access agreement, they will pay more than they would under that program. When access codes are required across a program, or even across an entire college, an Inclusive Access or Equitable Access agreement does benefit students.

Does Equitable Access improve student success?

Having access to textbooks on day one may improve success rates for some students, but those effects will likely be small and difficult to measure. This idea has been investigated as the “access hypothesis.” The article Do open educational resources improve student learning? Implications of the access hypothesis found that even with large sample sizes, we should not expect to see statistically significant positive effects in a majority of cases.

There are few studies on the impact of Inclusive Access programs, and the results are mixed. Some show no effect on student outcomes, but at least one shows statistically significant positive effects.

So far there are no peer-reviewed studies demonstrating a positive or neutral effect from Equitable Access programs. Dr. Michael Moore is often cited by publishers and bookstores promoting Equitable Access programs. What his research on Equitable Access shows is that students who opt out of Equitable Access programs (and may not have access to required course materials such as the homework platform) do much worse than their peers who remain in the program.

Are these programs equitable?

The cost of instructional materials varies significantly across academic programs. According to the National Association of College Stores Student Watch Report, students in Political or Law-Related fields, Health Professions, and Business programs pay the most for textbooks ($378-$389 per year), while Undeclared students, Mathematics majors, and Physical Sciences majors pay the least ($174-$219 per year). This variability is due to textbook decisions being made by individual faculty or programs.

At my institution, Houston Community College, there are big differences in the adoption of Zero Cost Books and Inclusive Access options across disciplines. For example, 90% of English and Communications sections were tagged as Zero Cost Books, while no Mathematics courses and only 3% of Life & Natural Sciences courses were tagged as zero cost.

Inclusive Access fees at Houston Community College also vary considerably. In Spring 2024, the average Inclusive Access fee was $56.14, with a median of $47.36. However, some courses in Digital & Information Technologies had fees as high as $216.50.

The variability in textbook costs across programs raises concerns about the equity of Equitable Access. When a flat fee is implemented across all students regardless of major or courses taken, students in lower-cost book programs effectively subsidize those in higher-cost programs.

This is why the effectiveness and fairness of Equitable Access programs depends on the specific context of each institution. In colleges with diverse course offerings and textbook preferences, an “Equitable” Access program may generate inequities in its implementation. In more uniform settings like medical or law schools, where instructional materials needs are similar across courses, Equitable Access programs may not result in cost redistribution among students.

Ultimately, whether Equitable Access programs are truly equitable depends more on the context in which they are implemented than the structure of the program itself. In a typical college with diverse course offerings and textbook preferences, an Equitable Access program is likely to create considerable inequities in its implementation.

Student Rights and Responsibilities

In spring 2024, the Education Department’s Program Integrity and Institutional Quality Committee considered changing cash management rules for paying textbook fees with financial aid. The key issue is whether Inclusive Access and Equitable Access programs should be opt-in or opt-out. Currently, opt-out rates for these programs are typically 2-10%, but opt-in rates would probably result in much lower participation rates.

Behavioral economics research shows that opt-out programs have much higher participation rates than opt-in programs. For example, organ donation consent rates are significantly higher in opt-out countries (82%) compared to opt-in countries (42%). This principle applies to textbook programs, where an opt-out model would likely result in much higher participation rates than a similarly structured opt-in model.

The choice between opt-in and opt-out models raises ethical concerns about student autonomy. While some may argue that students shouldn’t have full autonomy in choosing course materials, it is important to recall that all students, as adults, should have the right to make informed decisions about their education expenses. Opt-out models inherently remove autonomy; they “presume consent” whereas opt-in models require participants to express consent. Arguments for removing autonomy rely on the notion of paternalism, that is, the idea that someone else is in a position to decide for the student to ensure that they are benefitted and not harmed by their choices.

However, the benefits of opt-out textbook billing models are questionable. It’s unclear whether they reduce overall student spending on textbooks, and existing, opt-out Equitable Access programs may even increase aggregate spending. What these programs clearly do benefit is bookstores and publishers by increasing sell-through rates and profits.

Additionally, automatic textbook billing programs often lack transparency. Students may struggle to understand the true costs and alternatives. Opt-out processes are sometimes difficult to navigate and not clearly communicated to students. This lack of transparency creates an information asymmetry that further challenges student autonomy and informed decision-making. In short, it is difficult to presume the consent of students to a program like this because it is rare for students to have enough information to make informed decisions about whether they want to participate.

Lastly, the platforms used for Inclusive Access and Equitable Access programs engage in data mining practices, raising concerns about student privacy. The collection and sale of student data for advertising purposes may compromise the educational experience, reducing students to producers of consumer data rather than individuals engaged in a process of personal growth and empowerment.

While Inclusive Access and Equitable Access programs aim to simplify textbook acquisition, they raise significant concerns about student autonomy, transparency, and the commercialization of education. So far the data does not show that the benefits outweigh the downsides.