St. Pete textbook affordability initiative saves student body over $1 million

USF St. Pete joined the Textbook Affordability Project in 2016, and has since saved students over $1 million by adjusting syllabi, looking for alternatives to hard copy textbooks and purchasing copies for students to rent. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/UNSPLASH/Sharon McCutcheon

The Nelson Poynter Library at USF St. Pete adopted the Textbook Affordability Project in 2016, saving USF students a total of $1 million and helping library staff move toward their goal of making textbooks entirely open-access universitywide.

Catherine Cardwell, regional associate vice chancellor of academic affairs and dean of the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library, and other USF librarians have been working closely with faculty members to reevaluate their syllabi as part of the initiative to see if required readings for their courses can be obtained cheaper without compromising the integrity of the instruction.

Among these efforts, workshops have been created by librarians for faculty to use to help them find electronic content such as articles and e-books rather than physical copies. The USF Library system has also allocated funds from the St. Pete library’s budget to purchase more copies of textbooks for students to rent for up to three hours per day.

The Textbook Affordability Project received a $3,500 grant from St. Pete campus-based nonprofit Town and Gown to buy books and spent over $4,000 to acquire multidisciplinary resources for student access.

“We’ve reached out to faculty and built very strong relationships with them to help them get into their Canvas courses,” said Cardwell. “Overall, I think our experience is that faculty want to do what is right for students.”

Launched in 2009 by Florida International University, the project has since been adopted by numerous Florida schools, including USF. It has saved the Florida student population a total of $27 million by working with faculty to adjust their syllabi to include cheaper alternatives and obtaining extra copies or open educational resources for unlimited access.

The participating libraries comb online databases to find less expensive textbooks and add them to their reserve collections and then host workshops for faculty to select and promote cheaper textbooks for their courses.

Textbook costs have risen by 1,041%, three times the rate of inflation, from 1975 to 2015, creating serious equity issues among students, especially those of lower socioeconomic standing, according to Cardwell.

“It’s a very closed market,” said Cardwell. “Until the microscope was put on [publishers], they were charging an arm and a leg, and it’s only in recent years that people and universities have been able to push back and take a stand.”

The Florida Legislature tried lowering textbook costs through a federal regulation in 2009, requiring faculty to submit their textbooks 45 days before the beginning of the semester. The library is then required to report any faculty who did not meet the deadline and provide reasoning for why they missed it.

The reason for this, Cardwell said, is transparency.

In monitoring the selections of textbooks made by faculty, the library can see if it’s making conscientious decisions for students, and students can see the cost of the textbooks for a course before they sign up on the USF Bookstore’s website.

While the Textbook Affordability Project applies to all campuses, there are also several initiatives specifically at the St. Pete campus to reduce textbook related costs, headed by Program Director Alexander Neff.

Among these initiatives are the Textbook Recommendation Service, E-books for the Classroom+, Affordability Counts, Textbook Adoption Compliance, a Canvas Textbook Affordability Project Toolbox and cost per credit hour tracking.

“E-books for the Classroom+ is something we’re really excited about and try to get as many faculty to participate in as possible,” said Neff. “The program acquires e-books requested by faculty on all campuses for their courses and tries to purchase a library license for those titles so an unlimited amount of students can access the book at the same time for free.”

With a library license, Neff said all students would have to do to access books would be to log in with their NetID and read it from there.

Neff and his team also collaborated with the USF Bookstore to improve its other initiatives and acknowledged that it played an integral role in the success of the Textbook Affordability Project.

“The Textbook Recommendation Service analyzes bookstore data and assists academic departments by recommending more affordable options each term,” said Neff. “This could include e-books instead of the more expensive print textbook, library course reserves and free open educational resources.”

Due to the data the bookstore provided, Neff and his team have not only been able to find affordable alternatives to recommend to faculty members, but have also been able to calculate the cost per credit hour that has gone down at the St. Pete campus as a result of their efforts.

“In fall 2016, we started at $44.44 per credit hour, which is about $120 for a three-credit course,” said Neff. “By fall 2020, we were able to reduce that average to $25.70, which is around $75 instead.”

While these savings have yielded results, Neff admits they still have more work to do.

Neff said some problems he still faces include the rigid and inflexible market of textbooks, which can cause some professors to get comfortable with one book and lukewarmly approach cheaper open educational resources, as well as courseware that can only be accessed with a one-time use code.

“I think the way to go would be going towards open-access textbooks,” said Neff. “There’s a great selection on OpenStax for all different general education courses.”

The Textbook Affordability Project at USF St. Pete also accepted textbook donations from students and extra copies from professors for general education courses to get a collection of books that cover every discipline so every student can have access to textbooks at a fair price.

“We come from the angle of trying to get the best materials at the best price,” said Neff. “The faculty have become a lot more aware of pricing and sensitive to it.”