When Madison College was considering a new textbook rental program that would significantly lower book costs for students, Tina Marshalek talked to her fellow students about what saving money on textbooks would mean to them.
Some of the testimonies she heard were “painful,” she said.
“Some students were looking forward to eating more regularly so they could be more lucid during class,” she said. “They would say, ‘Yeah, if I could save about $300 on my textbooks this semester, I would be able to eat breakfast every day.’”
After gaining overwhelming approval in a recent student referendum, Madison College, or MATC, will implement a new, full-rental textbook program in fall 2019, making it the first two-year institution in Wisconsin with such a program, a press release said.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Marshalek said. “(This could) save thousands of future students every semester hundreds of dollars.”
Instead of shelling out hundreds of dollars on new and used textbooks, students will pay an estimated supplemental fee of no more than $7 per credit (that’s $84 for 12 credits), to rent their textbooks from the college bookstore at no extra charge for the semester.
The program only applies to degree credit students, and not continuing education students. Students may have to pay for one-time-use materials like workbooks, cosmetology kits and some online access codes.
Full-time college students spent an estimated average of over $1,200 on books and supplies in the 2017-2018 school year, according a CollegeBoard survey.
A 2013 student survey found that about half of those surveyed said textbook cost affected how many or which courses they took.
“It isn’t just about getting a good deal, it’s about being able to focus more on your academics,” Marshalek said.
As the bookstore manager at Madison College for 14 years, Scott Heiman has seen the burden of textbook costs up close.
“I’ve been hearing it for years, ‘Why are these so expense? I can’t believe they’re so expensive,’” he said.
What students may not understand, Heiman said, is that Madison College bookstore adds a minimal markup to the publisher’s price to cover its costs. The bookstore exists to provide course materials for the students and aims to break even, he said.
The Madison College bookstore has offered textbook rentals on a limited number of titles for the last 10 years or so, but the rental fee was around 50 to 60 percent of the new retail cost, Heiman said.
“While it was helpful, it wasn’t the cost saving we really needed to see,” Heiman said.
Heiman is thrilled to offer the new rental program.
“It’s important that people know that we as a college, me as bookstore manager, we’re excited about this … I get chills when I talk about it,” he said. “I’m looking forward to students being able to come to the bookstore and not have that look of devastation on their face, like ‘Oh, how am I going to afford this?’”
HOW IT WORKS
Marshalek said the student government (known as the Student Senate) has been working on textbook affordability for about a decade. The program is modeled after similar programs at colleges around the state, like UW-Whitewater.
To make the system work, the school had to adjust their textbook adoption policy. Generally speaking, programs are now required to commit to a textbook for three years, and faculty teams will agree on a limited number of textbooks for multiple instructors teaching the same course, Heiman said. That way, the school can recoup six semesters worth of rental fees for each book.
There are some exceptions, Heiman said, like tax law instructors who need new books more frequently to keep up with changing tax law.
“We can’t force them to use the same book every year, or they’re teaching incorrect information,” Heiman said. “We’re going to work the best we can to include those types of things (in the rental program), but in some cases it’s just not going to be be a feasible option.”
In some cases, courses with more frequent textbook turnover could be compensated by subjects like English or History that may be able to use a text for more than three years, Heiman said.
A student referendum in November asked students whether they would support paying a segregated fee to fund the full-rental textbook program. It brought the highest ever voter turnout to a Madison College senate referendum, and 87 percent of students who voted approved the idea.
Marshalek, a past Student Senate president, ran the Vote Yes for Textbook Affordability campaign.
“I am very proud of our team,” Marshalek said. “I’m mostly just happy knowing how many students in the future are going to save so much money from this.”
With such big savings for students, why doesn’t every college have a similar program?
A major barrier, Marshalek and Heiman said, is that such a move requires a significant upfront investment from the college to purchase the initial book inventory. The college set aside $4 million dollars for the program, said Holly Deering, textbook rental program analyst. Heiman said it's still unclear exactly how much the program will cost.
Bookstore space and staff could also be potential barriers, Heiman said, but he’s working to spread out the flow of students so everyone doesn’t show up on the first day of classes to rent their textbooks and overwhelm the bookstore. There are also logistical challenges associated with getting books back at the end of the semester, like establishing late fees, he said.
Marshalek said it was a lot of work to change the textbook adoption process and “put together a proposal to see how we could operationalize such a thing.”
But Marshalek said she wouldn’t be surprised if the system ends up drawing more prospective students to Madison College after they realize they can save hundreds or thousands of dollars.