Skip to main content

Campus group takes the sting out of costly textbooks

In response to the growing concern about escalating textbook costs from faculty and students, a network of faculty and staff has banded together to develop and promote a suite of solutions for students looking to save money.

As cost projections rise to $1,600 a year for required textbooks, this collaboration of campus partners — called Affordable Instructional Resources (AIR)— is evangelizing ways for faculty to reduce that number through open resources and free library services. AIR committee member Karen Springen, a Medill lecturer and chair of the Student Affairs Committee for the Faculty Senate, said that through her work with the Senate, she hears student concerns of affordable course materials all the time. She sees it as AIR’s responsibility to help find solutions, then promote them to faculty.

“When I speak with faculty about these concerns, they agree right away,” she said. “For many people, they just didn’t realize the impact of costs, or didn’t know alternatives existed. So we have to get out the word about affordable solutions, and make it easy to do the right thing.”

The kinds of solutions proposed by AIR include:

  • Open Educational Resources. OER are free, digital, online resources for teaching, such as textbooks, instructional activities, and syllabi. AIR helps faculty find, evaluate and use these resources—and even create open resources for their own courses. Northwestern is a member of the Open Textbook Network, based at the University of Minnesota, which offers an online catalog of college textbooks that are free to download, print, or be revised to work with a specific course.
  • Alternative sources for textbooks. The Libraries have consulted with Norris Bookstore to purchase the most expensive textbooks in the highest-enrollment classes, and making them available for brief loans to students. “Course reserve” books are located at the circulation desks of Mudd and University libraries and can be checked out for a few hours at a time, long enough to read an essential chapter.
  • Timely book orders. AIR clarifies deadlines for faculty to submit their textbook orders to the bookstore and have course materials listed in CAESAR, which must be at least one week in advance of the opening of quarter registration. Timely orders have cascading benefits for students at the bookstore; late book orders affect the amount of copies available for sale at the start of classes and limit the ability for bookstores to buy used copies back from students. And bookstores won’t buy used books unless they know they’ll be assigned again in the future.
  • Inexpensive course packets. It’s possible that the specific book chapters and journal articles required for a class are already freely available thanks to the Libraries’ subscriptions to online databases and e-book collections. Librarians can check faculty syllabi and provide links to those free resources (which can in turn be easily linked from Canvas.)

AIR’s work is supported by Associated Student Government, whose members have kept the issue on the forefront of ASG’s initiatives, and who are conducting student surveys that further inform AIR’s recommendations.

“ASG has been very active on the issue affordability,” Springen said. “Sometimes the best way to raise faculty awareness is for the students to speak up about it.”