Rising Cost of Textbooks: One University's Cost Cutting Measure Could Spark Industry-Wide Dialogue

The rising cost of textbooks has been vexing college administrators for decades. And in more recent years, with the annual cost of college reaching what many consider to be a tipping point that could negatively impact enrollment, the problem has received even more scrutiny.

Some schools have jumped headfirst into the controversy, striking deals with publishers in which the institution underwrites the cost of textbooks and then charges students an all-inclusive fee for course materials. This approach may save money, but it's a blow to academic freedom.

Perhaps it's the human instinct of "fight or flight" that kicks in when crises arise, but an even greater number of schools have chosen to walk away from the issue. These institutions reason that students themselves can find creative solutions to the problem of high costs -- through purchases of used books, rental agreements, sharing with friends or use of the university library.

What these schools seem surprised to learn, however, is that some students are reacting to the high cost of textbooks by taking flight from the problem themselves, and not even bothering to buy what they perceive as irrelevant materials offered at unreasonably high prices. Clearly, that does not help the process of learning.

And then there is Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). Never one to take flight or follow the pack, SNHU President Paul Leblanc decided recently to use a novel approach to fight the high cost of textbooks. Instead of working out new deals with publishers, SNHU took a different problem-solving route, directly to the door of the campus bookstore. President Leblanc's decision could augur a paradigm shift in the way schools work with those stores.

Of course, since SNHU is a unique institutional animal, with both a thriving traditional campus and booming enrollment in its online programs, its "bookstore" is a "brick and click" facility. Some students walk in to the "brick" facility, make their textbook selections, and leave, loaded down both with books and with a substantial hit on the piece of plastic they used to make their purchase. Other SNHU students simply "click" from the comfort of home, and receive their course materials delivered a few days later from a person in a bright white or dark brown truck.

The ability to serve those students has been granted for years to SNHU bookstore vendor Follett Higher Education. As part of making that grant, SNHU received a double-digit percentage commission. In other areas of university affairs -- such as financial aid, campus health and residence life -- such commissions are explicitly banned or severely frowned upon. But so far, in the arena of textbooks, they have been a fact of life, not just at SNHU, but across the country.

SNHU President Leblanc, in partnership with his AVP for student advising Amelia Manning, declared a halt to the one-way commission train. Leblanc and Manning notified Follett that its SNHU bookstore contract would be terminated and that a new request for proposals would be issued. The new SNHU bookstore vendor will be expected to price its offerings so the money saved goes to students directly, not into the university's coffers.

Of course, SNHU has the luxury of putting in place such policies for its next bookstore vendor because the university's finances are flush. Not all institutions are so fortunate, so therefore not all students will ever benefit from such a benevolent contractual model. And even SNHU concedes that its new policy can only go so far in lowering textbook prices, with Manning telling Inside Higher Ed that "the university recognizes that its own levers to affect textbook prices are not nearly so powerful as those of the publishers." Still, Manning says, "the university thinks it can at least nudge students toward relatively inexpensive options."

Profound paradigm shift or gentle nudge, the SNHU decision to rework its bookstore relationship is good for students and for all of us working in the course materials marketplace. We have long been in need of a conversation starter that recognizes that the whole of solving the problem of textbook costs for students is greater than the sum of its many moving parts.

Now, thanks to SNHU, we have an opening. Professors, administrators, publishers, bookstores and facilitators of custom course materials -- print and digital -- should seize this moment and begin a meaningful discussion about ways to provide students with the highest quality, copyright-cleared materials at the lowest possible price. Let's make 2012 the year that textbook prices peaked, and 2013 the year that a meaningful solution is created. We'll call our effort It Can Be Done 101. I've signed up. You?

Caroline Vanderlip is CEO of SharedBook Inc., the creator of AcademicPub.