A closer look at ‘inclusive access’ textbook programs

An advocacy organization has created a website exploring colleges’ use of “inclusive access” programs, a textbook model that integrates the costs of digital course materials into a student’s tuition and fees. The online resource, created by the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) and several partners, illustrates the pros and cons of a model that has been marketed as a money-saving alternative for students.

SPARC is a proponent of a different approach—open educational resources, freely available materials that can be downloaded, edited, and customized at no cost. In posting inclusive access contracts between individual colleges and major book publishers, SPARC’s site reinforces anecdotal evidence “that colleges’ unique populations and how the contracts are crafted could make a difference,” The Chronicle of Higher Education writes.

Model increasingly popular, but impact unclear

Several major publishing outlets, including Pearson, Cengage, and McGraw-Hill Education, have launched inclusive access textbook programs. Since 2015, when the Department of Education allowed institutions to include books and supplies in their tuition and fees, 950 colleges have introduced programs similar to inclusive access.

Proponents of inclusive access programs have said such digital subscriptions enable instructors to continue using preferred texts while ensuring that students all have access to the latest content, rather than using varying editions for class or struggling to purchase materials at all.

Some onlookers, however, have questioned how much students truly save, noting that the discounts advertised by the programs are based on the cost of a new print edition, while many college students already opt for lower-cost rentals or used books. Digital textbooks also can not be resold at the end of a course.

Related link: What could the shift toward digital textbooks mean for affordability? >

SPARC’s Director of Open Education Nicole Allen told The Chronicle that she hopes the new website will prompt a closer look at inclusive access’s implications for students’ textbook costs. College textbook prices have risen by 1,041 percent since 1977, according to NBC’s review of Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data.

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