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The case against course costs

the devil's archive

It’s five weeks deep into the semester and the first round of midterms has already come and gone. Throughout the week, I frequented the first-floor of Perkins, where a sea of hunched figures, coffee, textbooks, and glowing laptop screens greeted me as I hit my own late-night grinds. 

I throw off my 50-pound backpack with relief, grab a seat, and toss my textbooks, which amount to a whopping 600 dollar cumulative retail value, on the table without a second thought. After weeks of neglect, my many purchases in the DukeStore during drop-add finally saw the light of day. 

Still, not everyone has the luxury of hurling their exorbitantly-priced materials across a table in Perkins with agitation. In fact, many students refrain from purchasing their books altogether. 

Course costs pose a barrier not only to student outcomes once they’re in a class, but actively impact students’ self-determinism in the course selection process. Because of the imposition of financial restraints, a student may opt to take classes with more affordable materials. In an institution that prizes free reign to explore intellectually without barriers, this compromise that students are cornered into is unacceptable. 

This lack of consumerism can be attributed to the growth of shadow libraries—the “black market” of course materials—which bypass the actual purchase of materials by way of textbook pdf circulation, online databases and other sharing platforms. But it’s also a consequence of the general inflated costs endemic to higher education over the past few decades. 

The problem isn’t exclusive to Duke either. In a national survey, about 80% of respondents reported that they had waited to purchase course materials until after the class had started and 42% said they had “avoided purchasing the course materials” altogether. 

“We truly are in an access crisis,” said Richard Baraniuk, professor at Rice University and founder of OpenStax, a nonprofit that provides access to free online versions of textbooks.

Notwithstanding the obvious fact that courses are growing increasingly more expensive, it’s also an issue when assumed “required” class materials actually end up being optional. It’s a flaw in the course design if the class materials are not continually evaluated for relevancy. 

But beyond the course-by-course level, dependence on traditional forms of course materials pose higher systemic issues, most notable being the monopoly publishers purvey over standardized knowledge. Five publishers—Pearson Education, Scholastic, McGraw-Hill Education, Cengage Learning, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—control an astounding 80% of the textbook industry. 

What can actually be done, though? Classes demand structured curriculum and textbooks serve to streamline knowledge so that professors are able to employ their discretion when paving through material. 

Last semester, I participated in a Spring Breakthrough program called Hack Your Education: Design Sprint. It was a several day problem-solving workshop that revolved around issues affecting the greater Duke undergraduate community. The session kicked off with a reverse-pitch, where our team listened to representatives spanning the institution on a wide purview of topics. 

Dave Hansen, Associate University Librarian for Research Collections and Scholarly Communication, pitched on the allocation of university resources to help mitigate course costs. Deeply disturbed at the hurdles students leap through in order to acquire their books, we unanimously resolved to take on this critical problem. 

In a survey our team sent out to a sample of the undergraduate student body, many expressed the struggle to navigate nebulous backwaters to get the materials they need for class. One student wrote in an anonymous statement that they often end up downloading illegal copies of textbooks since second-hand books are too costly. 

“I wish there was another way for me to access the information for free,” they said. 

Others felt disillusioned by the hefty fees. “I was just blindsided by all of these costs, in all honesty.” 

But these costs transcend solely textbook fees. Students often find themselves drowning in subscription, software, and other miscellaneous lab fees. 

In the past decade, the integration of technology in the classroom has skyrocketed. And because of this rapid digitization of the 21st century learning environment, textbook publishing companies have been implementing compensatory means to maintain relevance: from cranking up subscription fees to churning out new editions. Part of the fear stems from legitimate concern that their resources are becoming somewhat obsolete. Online tools are dynamic, easily modifiable, and widely accessible. 

At the end of the Spring Breakthrough, we explored potential solutions assuaging the burden of hiked course costs. And from our findings, open Educational Resources (OER), a growing medium of course materials, has the potential to transform learning in higher education. OER are any type of open licensed educational material. Anyone can legally and freely use, adapt, and re-share the content. 

By democratizing, standardizing, and generating knowledge through OER, universities can pool their intellectual resources, ideally developing an inter-collegiate consortium of class material. This would then reduce higher education’s strict reliance upon big-five publishers to provide students with quality content, thus fostering more institutional autonomy. 

Because at a university that wields the power to create knowledge, so does it also have the capacity to curate it. 

Catherine McMillan is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, “the devil’s archive,” runs on alternate Fridays.

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