Textbook publishers find new ways to squeeze students


College textbook prices have skyrocketed in the last 20 years, surpassed only by hospital services. (Photo courtesy of the American Enterprise Institute)

Defying perceptions of a dying industry, one sector of the publishing world is still doing brisk business these days, and it’s all thanks to college students.

After raising the average college textbooks’ price nearly 200 percent since 1997—a surge outpaced only by hospital services — the corporate giants of educational publishing have set their sights on a new area for growth.

“The era of the textbook is now over” McGraw Hill CEO David Levin announced to the Financial Times in 2015.  Levin’s proclamation would serve as public notice that while price gouging college students with ever-escalating textbook prices may have built their near monopolies,  the college textbook industry was moving on. Heavy hitters like McGraw Hill and its rival Pearson were turning the page on the textbook era and doing so with giddiness rather than trepidation.

As college goes digital, the publishers have devised an audacious and lucrative new revenue stream for themselves: having students pay them to do their homework.

They’re called “access codes” and as a business major, Nick Darlington has spent hundreds of dollars per quarter on them.

A recent marketing class required the DePaul sophomore to purchase two third-party access codes, $200 for a HitPlay.net homework module (similar to Pearson and McGraw Hill’s own MyLab and Connect digital programs) and even an additional $35 for an online test. Ultimately, Darlington would receive a grade deduction on the test because he lacked the money to submit his work.

Like a growing number of business and science classes in the access code era, you have to pay to play. No codes? No chance of passing the class.

Professor Paul Kessenich, who taught Darlington’s class, insists the access codes deliver better value.

“Rather than have to read a text they are getting live videos of each of the points by an…award winning marketing person,” he said. Students who balk at such access codes, he argues, ”don’t appreciate the value their getting.”

Kessenich isn’t alone among faculty in championing the new access code model as the inevitable successors to an obsolete “dead tree” model. Programs like Pearson’s MyLab, they argue, offer class content in a more accessible way to students on the go, delivering instant test results and offering an alternative to the traditional “one size fits all” physical textbook. And to make this case, publishers like McGraw Hill have adopted sales tactics long associated with Big Pharma, often deploying an army of sales reps to sell professors like Kessenich on the benefits of moving their classes into their own access code-restricted digital futures.

Apparently, they’ve succeeded; 2016 saw a 12 percent jump in purchases for McGraw Hill’s Connect and LearnSmart programs. But while many professors and lobbyists have positive things to say about this model, it’s hard to find the same enthusiasm among students who actually purchase the codes.

DePaul senior Tony Paoli is one of them.

I pay $30,000 a year to learn from expert professors and access DePaul amenities, I don’t pay $30,000 a year to then pay an extra hundred dollars to have my professors pawn their work off to a third rate, for-profit company.”

— Tony Paoli

A glance at tweets using the #AccessCodes hashtag suggests Paoli’s sentiments are not unique. One typical tweet reads, “You know ur a broke college kid when you’re willing to use the end piece of a loaf of bread on ur sandwich #AccessCodes&Rent.”

However, Marisa Bluestone, an industry spokesperson, argues these growing complaints ignore the reality that digital products are actually helping students to save money.”

“Students have spent less on their course materials since 2017 than they have in prior years,” she said.

The average cost of access codes, roughly $100, is less than an average new textbook — though unlike the latter, codes can’t be shared. But critics claim this factoid obscures a larger truth surrounding access codes which explains both what attracts Wall Street investors to them as engines of future profit—the fact that students have to buy them to pass classes—and what makes their rise so detrimental to the poorest college students.

The DePaul Student Government Association (SGA)  is participating in a March 6 panel from 11:30 to 1 p.m. in room 115 of the Richardson Library on advancing free digital alternatives to access codes as part of an overall discussion on affordability. More broadly, DePaul SGA president, Michael Lynch, assures students that access codes have and will increasingly be part of the organization’s agenda.

This may be the best those morally opposed to paying mega corporations to do homework can hope for.