Access codes raise textbook prices; limit accessibility

Courtesy of CengageBrain Access codes through sites like McGraw Hill and Cengage are making it harder for students to complete homework, take tests or study.

09/06/2018

By Ollie Gratzinger | Opinions Editor

Yes, I’ve ranted about the obscene and ever-rising price of textbooks in the past. Yes, I’m going to do it again, because surprisingly (not), it’s still a really big problem. I’d be willing to wager that this issue specifically unites college students all around the country, no matter how deeply other differences might divide them. I’m definitely going to write about it again.

Access codes. Heard of them? If you’ve ever taken a foreign language here at Duquesne, chances are you’ve had to shell out big bucks for a string of numbers that would serve as your online key to unlock things like homework assignments, workbooks, tests and more. I’m all for incorporating more digital elements into the classroom, but the problem, of course, is the paywall.

Literally nothing about college is inexpensive. Even the prices of food on campus keep rising as long as people keep paying. But access codes present a clear and present danger to talks of financial accessibility within the university system itself, basically making it so students don’t have the cheaper options they’ve had in the past.

For instance, if your course requires a textbook bundled with an access code, you can’t buy that textbook used on Amazon or Chegg, because the codes are little one-use wonders and they usually expire after a semester or so. You can’t get a hand-me-down from an older sibling or friend who might’ve taken the class before you, and you can’t sell your textbook back after a year of gentle use because without the codes, it isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Either you buy the book new for hundreds of dollars, or if you can’t, you take the loss.

And for what? There is no conceivable up side. Once the access expires, you can’t go back later in your studies to review exercises from a previous class because the stupid thing expired. Considering the cumulative nature of foreign language education, this feels like a cheap (hah, as if) ploy to make students pay more for less. If you wanted to look back and see, for instance, how to use the subjonctif verb form in French, or if you just need a refresher on when to capitalize which words in German, you might as well Google it, because there’s no retrieving those notes from an outdated code. (And if you can Google the info so easily, why pay hundreds of dollars for it in the first place?)

The danger of putting a steep paywall between students and access to a quality foreign language education is as innumerable as it is dismal. Monolingualism is disproportionately high in Anglophone countries for a number of reasons, and in America, finances play a pretty big role in that.

There are so many inexpensive or even free tools that can help out in this area of education, from the Pittsburgh-based app Duolingo, to Babbel, which runs on a relatively low-cost subscription service. So why don’t we integrate these into our classrooms before integrating tools that tend to alienate large demographics of students and discourage them from pursuing foreign language at all?

Some institutions of higher education, like Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts, have started to “open-access resource texts,” according to CBS News. By using these and other open educational resources (OER), students at these universities are saving a lump sum of cash while still getting a similar, if not the same education we’re getting here at Duquesne.

According to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, OER can be defined as “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.”

Additionally, “Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software and any other tools, materials or techniques used to support access to knowledge.”

In a perfect world, the sharing of knowledge would be accessible to everyone. Students wouldn’t have to pay to do homework online when they’re already paying tens of thousands of dollars to attend university in the first place. Hell, students wouldn’t have to pay for university at all in a perfect world.

Maybe we’ll get there someday, but in the meantime, it’s imperative that professors and the departments responsible for producing a book list think critically about the impact assigning a $200 access code, eliminating the less expensive option of purchasing used, could have on their students, many of whom are also struggling to balance the financial burdens of student loans, bills and food. If there are other options, explore them.

Open resource education, apps on phones or group-rate subscription services are all alternatives to funding the rich and syndicated textbook companies getting richer on the college student’s dime. Try it out; Your students will appreciate it, and you might even find higher enrollment numbers coming your way.

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