About the cost of course materials

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After all, when did it become acceptable to charge a course registration fee to tuition-paying students?

My good friend, Kimani Isaac, recently started a petition regarding the high cost of textbooks at Northwestern University.

The petition has been signed by 574 supporters, including myself and Isaac, and is expected to be delivered to the university president, Morton Schapiro, the provost, Jonathan Holloway, and the vice president for student affairs, Patricia Telles-Irvin.

The petition began after Isaac wrote an opinion piece about her experiences with textbooks on campus in North by Northwestern (where I’m the treasurer, among things), which drew attention from fellow students.

But the issue of textbooks on campus has affected Northwestern for many years; North by Northwestern alone looked into textbook prices in 2008, finding that Amazon was generally cheaper, and Associated Student Government, the university’s undergraduate student representative body, passed a resolution in early 2016 about the issue.

There are solutions. Financial aid can definitely help, and Northwestern’s Student Enrichment Services is trying to address this issue, too.

But Isaac touches upon a problem that’s precluding obvious options, such as second-hand textbooks, from being effective.

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When students have to purchase expensive online materials like Sapling, McGraw Hill, and Pearson just to do homework,” Isaac wrote, “even the internet becomes a barrier.”

Isaac is referring to the online systems for learning and grading, such as Sapling Learning, which require students to purchase an access code for the material.

This can be great as an additional learning resource. Not every student learns in the same way, and having 24/7 access to educational materials outside of office hours can definitely help students struggling with a difficult course.

But it’s improper to incorporate such additional learning materials as part of the graded curriculum when students are already paying $52,239 for tuition each year.

I took Northwestern’s Math 230, Differential Calculus of Multivariable Functions, in the winter quarter of my first year. The assigned textbook was easily found on the Facebook group Free and For Sale, since the class is taken by many students as it’s required by multiple majors, including the computer science major.

But the course required WebAssign, a service from Cengage Learning, that costs $100 according to today’s Amazon prices.

Screenshot from the syllabus page for MATH 230 on Canvas, Northwestern University’s online learning management system provided by Instructure.

The textbook and online access code can be purchased as a bundle, which is what I eventually did.

But it’s not possible to re-use access codes, so even though I could sell my brand-new textbooks as second hand, my textbook bundle was not of any use to students taking Math 230 after me.

The issue of access codes to online learning materials such as WebAssign was also a source of controversy at Harvard University, after the instructor for Harvard’s introductory economics class began to require students to pay $130 for a set of materials as part of the course in 2016.

Like Northwestern’s Math 230, the Harvard economics class used a separate online system to submit and grade homeworks rather than the university’s own learning management system, Canvas.

Both Harvard and Northwestern switched in spring 2014 to the same web-based learning management system provided by Instructure, which is provided at no cost to students. Canvas includes a quiz feature that can be used to auto-grade assignments.

The Harvard controversy led to two editorials from the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, about the high cost of textbook fees.

But the issue here is not the high cost of textbooks per se, but the cost of attached online systems requiring one-time access codes — effectively precluding the resale of textbooks, a right protected by the Supreme Court of the United States.

It’s legal under that Supreme Court ruling to resell copyrighted material under the first-sale doctrine, modelled after the idea that sellers can’t control what buyers do with property after it’s sold. If you sold me a car and I wanted to smash it with a hammer, you can’t really stop me from doing so.

But access codes to systems such as Sapling Learning are subscriptions, not products, and so therefore aren’t reusable or transferable.

(Meanwhile, instructors have access to Sapling Learning for free.)

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Requiring fee-charging homework services as part of the syllabus is nothing short of a course registration fee. It is a cost to students charged directly in relation to their registration in a course, and would not have been incurred if students had not enrolled in that class.

Course registration fees are perfectly acceptable in many situations, such as for continuing studies on a per-course basis.

But it’s outrageous to charge these fees to tuition-paying students, since that’s another cost of instruction not covered by the university’s $55,000 tuition. If my tuition is not covering the costs of my courses, then what, exactly, am I paying that for?

What can Northwestern do?

The university can, after consultation with faculty, institute a policy that no instructor include fee-charging services as part of syllabus requirements. In cases of demonstrated instructional need, Northwestern can cover the cost of online learning services through a university-wide license so it can be provided for free to students, like Canvas.

Unless I’m mistaken about the history of higher education, universities did not charge students for the administrative costs of grading their assignments when submitting problem sets was a matter of leaving it in an instructor’s office mailbox. That we have moved on to an electronic age should not have changed this principle.

* Edited to clarify that the first-sale doctrine is an exception to copyright law rather than applying to sales of all kinds of products, including the car.