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Editorial: UCLA must push more departments toward accessible textbooks, supplies

By Editorial Board

August 27, 2017 10:51 pm

A UCLA department has finally implemented policies to lower textbook costs for students. And the change came about relatively easily: All it needed was an angry email from a parent to Chancellor Gene Block.

Beginning fall, chemistry and biochemistry department instructors will be required to provide no-cost alternatives to course materials and state in their syllabi whether they profit from the sale of any written course materials. In addition, a committee will have to review all written course materials that impose a cost on students to determine if they truly provide educational value.

While we can’t immediately gauge how effective these policies will be in curbing textbook costs, these changes take the right approach in rethinking how instructors assign course materials.

Other departments on campus need to follow this change and mandate instructors provide no-cost alternatives to paid course materials.

This could be done, for example, by urging instructors to upload portions of textbooks that are relevant to their course curricula – without violating copyright rules, of course – and make available any notes or other online resources that can take the place of a traditional textbook. Departments should also work closely with libraries to ensure textbook reserves are large enough to allow students to check them out for sufficient periods of time.

Exorbitant textbook prices, while a seemingly pedestrian college student problem, are no laughing matter. Students are already cash-strapped because of rising tuition costs and higher federal student loan interest rates, and unwieldy prices for textbooks that are often only usable for one or two quarters exacerbate students’ financial concerns and can contribute to documented problems such as food insecurity on campus.

Libraries certainly might seem like a plausible alternative, but students are greatly limited by the two-hour textbook checkout period, which restricts where and when – and even if – they can study and complete their coursework.

The chemistry and biochemistry department’s policy changes, however, can address these concerns. Increasing library course reserves, especially for courses for which the entire textbook is necessary, ensuring the materials students purchase are necessary and providing online alternatives could reduce students’ expenditures and even improve academic retention at UCLA – and other departments would do well to mimic these changes.

And while it’s reasonable for faculty to earn income from sales of self-authored textbooks, requiring departments to disclose whether professors are making a profit on course-required textbooks helps address concerns that they have ulterior motives in requiring students to buy certain textbooks.

Of course, different departments have different course materials, and requiring all of them provide no-cost alternatives may seem implausible. But these changes are feasible: UCLA estimates books and supplies cost a student $1,635 per year. Online resources and increased library reserves make it easier to provide no-cost alternatives, and requiring professors to disclose profits made on textbook sales would mandate minimal effort.

Moreover, other departments should be emboldened to provide alternatives to students when a department as large as the chemistry and biochemistry department has already taken the initiative to do so.

After all, they needn’t wait for more angry emails addressed to the chancellor to make education more affordable.

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