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UPADHYAYA: Inclusive access must stay inclusive

The inclusive access textbook program should retain its opt-out structure or risks damaging affordable access to higher education

Earlier this semester, the Biden Administration announced that it wants to amend an Obama-era policy that established the inclusive access textbook program for students across the nation. This program gives college students automatic access to online versions of textbooks from the beginning of the semester and — here at the University — the cost of these textbooks are ultimately charged directly to students’ financial services accounts. The Biden administration’s proposed change would prevent students from being automatically opted into the inclusive access program at their universities, instead forcing them to opt in themselves. The Biden Administration argues that this shift in policy will give students more autonomy over what course materials they choose to purchase. However, in reality, making such a change will deal a blow to students by undoing the part of this policy which has played a fundamental role in driving down the cost of course materials. 

Inclusive access acts as a leasing system that gives students access to their textbooks for a limited amount of time. Because of this, inclusive access publishers are required to provide textbooks “below competitive market rates,” often at discount rates around 70 percent. Moreover, textbook companies are still able to profit despite these lower prices purely because of how many students end up using inclusive access services. While the lower prices clearly benefit students, the continued profitability for companies is equally essential because it guarantees their continued buy-in to this program. In short, the Obama-era policy strikes a careful balance between decreasing the costs of materials for students while also appeasing the companies which provide these discounts. 

The benefit of cheaper textbooks extends beyond the individual level. If not enough students in an institution ‘opt in’ under the Biden Admin’s new policies, then publishers cannot provide inclusive access to course materials to the whole student body. In this way, limiting inclusive access models can cause the overall cost of attending college to go up, hurting students’ academics. The purpose of inclusive access is to offer easy access to course material without exorbitant costs. This undercuts the very mission of inclusive access — accessibility. And inclusive access has effectively accomplished this goal — the average amount of money spent on course materials has dropped from $662 to $285 from 2012-2013 to 2022-2023, partially due to the use of inclusive access models. Lowering the costs of higher education, even with something seemingly small, such as textbook costs, is bound to increase the likelihood that someone will finish their degree — something which is in all our best interests.

Despite such positive impacts, critics of the Obama-era policy, including the Biden administration, claim that inclusive access’ opt-out structure causes students to pay for materials they do not need. This critique, however, oversimplifies the nature of the opt-out structure. In fact, billing for inclusive only occurs after continued student inaction — students have the choice, albeit within a deadline, whether or not to utilize these materials or opt-out of the program. For example, at the University, students have two weeks during the add-drop period during which to opt-out of the program should they choose. While this structure does place the onus of action on students, this is not an unreasonable responsibility for adults and is supplemented by emails which remind students of the impending opt-out deadline. In short, students have no excuse when deadlines, which are a part of the adult world, are missed. Making it opt-in does not imbue inclusive access with more student-centered autonomy. Rather, it merely shifts which group of students — those who want inclusive access books or those who do not — is burdened by the system.  

Critics have also argued that inclusive access, in addition to forcing students to pay for unnecessary course materials, does not actually improve academic outcomes. However, inclusive access models were never intended to improve academic outcomes by themselves — rather, they were intended to increase the accessibility of resources which they have, objective, done. Not only has inclusive access lowered the prices of textbooks, having textbooks online also improves accessibility because it enables students who are changing courses at the beginning of the semester to gain access to certain materials as quickly as possible. And while paper sources are undoubtedly more effective for knowledge acquisition, the landscape of universities has fundamentally changed since Biden was in college — today, the reality is that technology dominates every facet of university-life and textbooks are no different. Given the ease of having textbooks easily accessible online and the financial advantage of discounts, it is unsurprising that the inclusive access program is increasingly popular, leading many students to not opt-out of it. 

Inclusive access continues to be a creative solution to help lower the economic burden on students and their families that attending college poses. But the practical reality of this program is that it cannot rely solely on the good faith of the companies who furnish the textbooks. By changing the policy to not automatically opt students into the program, publishers will not see an incentive to provide the program at all, causing prices to go up. This will make college less affordable, contradicting the administration’s stated mission and priorities. In short, making inclusive access opt-in will hurt students for years to come, undoing the progress made to bring the cost of course materials down and college affordability up. 

Apal Upadhyaya is an opinion writer who writes about politics for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com.

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.

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