Federal Rule Change May Undermine ‘Inclusive Access’ Textbook Models

There’s a new battle raging in the long-running war over costly college textbooks, one that may strike a serious blow to the textbook subscription programs promoted by publishers and criticized by student advocates.

The U.S. Department of Education recently started reevaluating financial aid regulations from 2016 that effectively allow colleges to automatically bill students for books and supplies as long as those materials meet criteria that include being sold at below competitive market rates.

This practice has enabled the growth of a digital subscription business model for textbooks, where publishers sign deals with colleges and bookstores to charge students fees in exchange for access to mostly online versions of the course materials assigned for their classes. Known in the publishing industry as “inclusive access” or “equitable access” programs, proponents say they benefit students by saving them money and ensuring they have all the materials they need at the start of the semester.

Current regulations require that these arrangements permit students to opt out of participating — therefore allowing them to hunt on their own for better prices on textbook rentals or secondhand copies. But opponents of this bundling model have long claimed that it’s very difficult for students to truly opt out, due to the labyrinthine processes required or because that option is often poorly publicized on campus. Additionally, since some subscription programs include courseware systems that professors use to grade homework and administer tests, sometimes students who opt out effectively can’t participate in their classes.

Now the federal government is considering changing the rules in ways that would essentially make it harder for colleges to automatically bill students for books as long as they allow students to opt out. Instead, institutions would have to invite students to opt in to paying for textbook subscription programs by authorizing these kinds of charges.

Such a shift would not necessarily doom “inclusive access” programs, both supporters and detractors say. But it could undermine the business model, which depends on colleges delivering student customers at scale to publishers in exchange for volume discounts.

“The efficiencies in the opt-out model would be lost,” says Richard Hershman, vice president of government relations for the National Association of College Stores.

The White House signaled support for the possible rule change. The next step in the process would be for the Department of Education to formally propose the change in the Federal Register and to open a public comment period. In order for a rule change to take effect in mid-2025, regulations would need to be finalized by Nov. 1. Otherwise, any changes would take effect in mid-2026.

Searching for Savings

The business of textbooks elicits strong opinions from nearly everyone in higher education. And the question of whether subscription services help or hurt students is a contentious one.

Sydney Greenway, a rising senior at the University of Pittsburgh, advocates for course material affordability through Student Public Interest Research Groups, or PIRGs. She had her first encounter with the “inclusive access” model during her freshman year at Wayne State University, when she saw a charge for course materials on her tuition bill that she didn’t recognize.

“I didn’t know what it was, I couldn’t click on it, I couldn’t opt out,” she says. “I had to wait for the first day of class to have it explained to me.”

Her professor told the class that the fee was part of a program designed to save students money by delivering them a digital textbook. That explanation made sense to Greenway — until she did some searching and found the same textbook on a different website for a lower price. When she started to use the assigned digital book, she realized she didn’t like that she was unable to print out her readings and that she couldn’t highlight or annotate the online text.

“If I’m reading it just on my laptop, it’s not going to be retained,” she says.

Since learning more about textbook options, Greenway has prioritized finding low-cost options that she can interact with the way she prefers. Her first choice, she says, is for a professor to assign a free, open educational resource that she can print as a PDF at the library. Her second choice is to look on eBay or another online retailer for a physical copy of a used textbook. As a last resort, she’ll go to her university bookstore and rent a used version. She estimates that shopping around has saved her hundreds of dollars on course materials each semester.

“If I’m not paying for $500 of textbooks, that’s a month of rent. I can get groceries that aren’t ramen,” she explains. “It really helps financially.”

Yet proponents of textbook subscription services argue that they, too, are saving students money. They point to data showing that the cost of course materials has lately leveled off, and that student spending on textbooks is falling after years of upticks.

“The savings are real,” Hershman says. “If the material is not below competitive market rates,” he adds, “it can’t be a part of the program.”

But a new report from Student PIRGs calls into question whether textbook bundling programs can really take credit for those financial trends. The research, which analyzed 171 textbook subscription contracts at 92 colleges and higher ed consortiums, was “not able to find clear evidence that these contracts provide savings for students,” says report co-author Dan Xie, political director at Student PIRGs. “If the savings are actually tied to automatic billing programs, it should be obvious from reading these contracts that there would be savings. It’s highly problematic that we can’t find the receipts of these savings” — especially considering federal rules require programs to charge below-market rates.

Of course, publishers, bookstores and colleges themselves have other vested interests in the success of subscription programs. Hershman says that bookstores save a lot of labor and time when they don’t have to manage used textbooks, and that it’s a “huge cost savings for publishers and stores” when they don’t have to process textbook returns. Digital subscription programs also help combat textbook piracy, Hershman adds, where students illegally download resources rather than pay for them.

And the Student PIRGs report found that in many cases, colleges benefit directly from “inclusive access” deals by taking a cut of the profits.

“It can in some ways explain why there are some colleges arguing against an opt-in policy,” says Nicole Allen, director of open education for the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, or SPARC, which advocates for open access resources.

“When we’re talking about charges students have been forced to make by their institution, who then gives money to the bookstore, and then gives a cut to colleges,” she argues, it might create “potential backwards incentives” on textbook affordability for students.

SPARC supports the possible proposed rule change that would require colleges to let students opt in, rather than opt out, to automatic billing for textbooks. That would put pressure on publishers, bookstores and colleges to prove to students that subscription programs really are an affordable option, Allen says.

“If the program is offering a really good deal for students, there is no reason the program won’t continue. If it’s not a good deal for students, the program may not operate — and it shouldn’t if it’s not a good deal for students,” she says. “Make it easy for them to say ‘yes.’”

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