How much will the books, supplies for a class cost? DSG now has a database to help

Did you drop $300 on a textbook only to read a few pages? 

A new Duke Student Government project can't make you actually do the readings for your 8:30 a.m. class, but it can tell you how much they'll cost.

Duke's tuition sits at roughly $56,000, but that doesn't include the price of books and other things needed for classes—which can vary between courses and be difficult to estimate without access to the syllabus. Thanks to a new website created as part of a Duke Student Government project, students may now be armed with better knowledge about what different classes might cost. 

The project was spearheaded by DSG President Kristina Smith, a senior, and first-year Meghna Mahadevan, senator for academic affairs. The website currently compiles the average textbook cost, other costs and optional costs for 15 courses, most of which are popular and entry-level. Course costs listed range from zero for Public Policy Studies 155 to $40 for Mathematics 105 to $145 for Italian 101. 

Although DSG often works on affordability, there has been a lack of focus on the classroom itself, Smith said.

“In my time in [Duke Student Government], I’ve come towards focusing on affordability,” Smith said, “It’s something that I ran on last year in my campaign, something I cared a lot about, something that students also seem to care a lot about.” 

Smith originally wanted to require faculty to calculate their own course costs and post them on DukeHub. However, the administration told her that it would be difficult to force faculty to do this, suggesting instead that she make a website that compiled students’ experiences. 

Mahadevan became interested in the project last semester, when Smith identified course costs as a priority during the first DSG meeting of the year. 

“When I interviewed for DSG, that was my one really big thing,” Mahadevan said. “I think coming into freshman year, that was my biggest shock…I was already paying this huge tuition bill and then I was like ‘I have to pay this much extra money for my textbooks.’”

She reached out to Smith and the two began working together. They sent out a survey last semester, which asks students about the costs of a handful of courses. Now, the website displays the average of the responses they received. 

Avery Boltwood, junior and president pro tempore of the DSG Senate, constructed the website itself. He had been working on a different transparency database for the past few years and brought that expertise to the project, according to Smith. 

The original survey asked which other courses included additional costs. Smith and Mahadevan will use this data to send out additional surveys and add more classes to the database. 

“If we could get to a huge majority of [classes at Duke], that’d be great,” Mahadevan said. 

She will continue working on the project next year after Smith graduates. 

Smith hopes that the website will help reshape the conversation around course cost at Duke. She said that many professors are not aware of how much their own textbooks cost, so the website can be a tool for them as well as for students. The end goal, for Smith, is to get faculty “thinking critically” about the materials that they assign. 

Mahadevan said she also wants create an award for socioeconomic inclusivity to honor faculty who show they care about their students' socioeconomic condition. The goal is to present the award for the first time this year, she added. 

“We think that if we can recognize professors for trying to foster an inclusive environment in their classroom, that will push more professors to help students find alternate resources to afford their classes a lot more,” she said. 

Matthew Griffin

Matthew Griffin was editor-in-chief of The Chronicle's 116th volume.


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