The cost of college is front and center in the national dialogue about higher education, with debates waging about value, outcomes and model viability. More than three-quarters of administrators, faculty and students, for example, think the cost of higher education is becoming financially out of reach for students. While reductions in the cost of tuition, room and board would have the biggest impact on affordability, the cost of course materials has been rightfully called out as an area for improvement as well.
The good news? We’re celebrating a big affordability milestone at Cengage. Five years ago, we launched the first unlimited course materials plan, Cengage Unlimited. In this moment, we found ourselves reflecting on some of the things we’ve learned about affordability in those five years and how it impacts not only students, but also educators.
1. Faculty want, need and deserve to focus on teaching.
Our 2023 Faces of Faculty research with over 1000 instructors showed us that spending time with students was the biggest driver of job satisfaction. Dealing with students who are unprepared for class (which can be a result of materials being too expensive) takes away from the time that educators can spend on teaching, mentoring and supporting the ongoing and new needs that today’s college students have, from long-tail effects of COVID to a heightened need for mental health support to the rise of generative AI and its associated challenges around plagiarism and cheating.
With all of these critical issues, one thing faculty shouldn’t have to worry about is “Did all of my students buy their textbooks?” Removing this barrier with affordable textbook programs frees instructors up to focus on what our surveys repeatedly show that they love: teaching.
2. Faculty want their students to succeed and they’re doing what it takes to help them.
Faculty care deeply about student success. They consistently tell us that teaching is what gets them up in the morning, and that connecting with students is what makes the job worth doing. To break down the textbook affordability barrier, many faculty have been exceptionally creative in how they build and deliver their courses – hence the takeoff of the open educational resources (OER) movement.
Yet, research shows that building course content using OER is time-consuming for educators (taking as much as 180 hours to build a single course), and places a great deal of responsibility on their shoulders to vet the materials for quality and accuracy. We know that many instructors don’t have the luxury of time to build their own course material. That’s why many who try OER end up coming back to publisher-supported materials, which are peer-reviewed, consistently updated and backed by service.
3. Students are making financial trade offs they shouldn’t have to make.
According to a recent white paper by Jeffrey Selingo, the cost of textbooks rose by three times the rate of inflation between 2002 and 2012, and the average student spending on course materials now stands at around $1,240 at a four-year institution. What do these costs – identified as a major stressor for 85% of students – mean for students who are struggling to pay for what they need?
Some eight in ten students have admitted to skipping out on purchasing some of their required course materials because of cost. Many wait until their financial aid disbursement hits – sometimes weeks after class starts – to buy books. And, some are making decisions that can have drastic short- and long-term implications. Two in ten, for example, changed their majors to reduce textbook cost. Three in ten decided not to take a course because of cost, and four in ten said they skipped meals to afford textbooks.
As higher education is asked to do more to convey its value to the wider public, these high costs and the “pay to play” nature of being prepared for class are strikes against its image. Lower course material costs can help the cause of advancing higher education’s public image and – more importantly – of ensuring students don’t needlessly suffer just to attend.
4. The cost of course materials and student success go hand-in-hand.
One of the most exciting things we’ve learned since launching Cengage Unlimited and its campus-wide version, Cengage Unlimited for Institutions, is that schools that adopt Cengage Unlimited are seeing stronger student retention and success. It makes sense — when access to textbooks is equitable and costs are affordable, participation goes up. Students can spend their energy learning instead of wondering how and when they’re going to pay for a textbook. Scale that across an institution, and you see some really powerful gains across the board.
Western Iowa Tech Community College, for example, partnered with Cengage Unlimited for Institutions (CUI) to provide access to all Cengage materials for all students for 15% of what students would have paid on average for course materials on their own. Their graduation rate rose from 17% in 2011 to 42.5% in 2022, meaning that by decreasing costs by 85%, graduation rates effectively tripled.
5. Nothing compares with listening to students and educators.
Cengage Unlimited was born out of a genuine problem — that too many college students can’t afford their course materials. We started down this road with a strong understanding of the cost-related complexities facing students and faculty. But, we’ve observed and learned so much during the last five years through our growing partnerships with colleges and universities. We’ve learned more about what faculty need, what students want and how companies like ours can help institutions connect the dots between price point and academic success so that more students show up prepared, engage in their learning and graduate. That’s a win for faculty, for administration, and most importantly, for students.
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