Opinion: Millsaps Should Reconsider the New Textbook Policy

Millsaps has implemented a new textbook policy this Fall that incorporates a $640 mandatory price tag to textbooks into tuition costs. Instead of students individually purchasing their textbooks (either at the College bookstore or through other sellers, such as Amazon), Millsaps will now provide all required course materials through the campus bookstore. Given that students aren’t allowed to opt out of this policy, nor were they consulted about it prior to its implementation, it’s worth examining the misleading way Millsaps communicated with students about the details of this policy, the policy’s effect on student learning, how a $640 textbook fee compares to alternatives, and what Millsaps should do now. 

Part 1: A Timeline of Events 

*Note: All quotes are selective excerpts from the full text. Emphasis added (bold) is my own. 

The textbook policy was first introduced to students in October of 2020, in an email by President Pearigen, who stated that there would be an increase in tuition: 

‘Included in the tuition increase is a change to our bookstore operations which will enable us to deliver all course materials (textbooks, lab kits, supplies, etc.) as part of your tuition cost. This means that on the first day of class, at a cost dramatically less than if you individually purchase your materials, you will have everything you need to be academically successful.’ 

At this stage, the College failed to communicate 1) the specific monetary value that students were effectively going to be charged for textbooks, 2) that the college-provided textbooks might be digital, and 3) that textbooks might be provided on a rental basis, and therefore that students wouldn’t be able to keep their textbooks after the semester’s end. The last two omissions rankle, since the phrase ‘at a cost dramatically less than if you individually purchase your materials’ suggests that the College will provide us with materials equal in value to what we would otherwise individually purchase. Later in this article, I will address how Millsaps has reneged on this implied promise by providing digital textbooks and rentals, as well as how, far from ‘dramatically’ reducing costs, Millsaps’ new policy comes out as a financial disadvantage to some students. 

Roughly nine months after the introduction of this textbook policy and just one month before the start of Fall classes, the Saps Supplies Team sent an email to students: 

‘This year, all your books and course materials required by your faculty are included in your tuition. You will be able to pick up hard copies at the bookstore during welcome weekend (or earlier for those with designated early move-in dates) and information about accessing digital material will be sent to your Millsaps email inboxes.  

Many of the books provided will be digital, and we recommend having a laptop to access them. If you think you’ll have a challenge accessing your digital materials, please notify the Care Team now (care@millsaps.edu) so they can work with you to find a solution before the semester starts.’ 

Naturally, students (and faculty, it seemed) were surprised by the fact that many textbooks would be provided digitally, and furthermore that they had no choice in the matter. Some professors replied to the email in protest. A survey on student responses to the policy was made by senior student Magill Grunfeld, who received 8 pages of responses—a list of these responses was compiled and sent to administration, with no discernable effect. 

Millsaps’ email also provided a link to www.millsaps.edu/admissions/saps-supplies/. The webpage contained language that could easily mislead a student into assuming that they would own, not rent, their materials (particularly since that’s what many would choose for themselves). For example, the webpage claimed that the policy would “provide” textbooks and reduce stress during the “purchasing process” by “take[ing] the hassle out of course material buying”. Up until this point, nowhere in Millsaps’ email correspondence, nor the Saps Supplies webpage, did Millsaps mention that textbooks could be given out on a rental basis. Given how important textbook ownership is to students who will take comprehensive exams in their senior year, this was an egregious omission. 

Following the outcry to the Saps Supplies Team’s email, Dean Dunn sent the following explanatory email: 

‘Some of you have asked about the cost of the program. While the actual cost to Millsaps will depend on the total number of credit hours students take in any given term, we estimated that the cost would be approximately $640/student for the academic year. That amount was built in to the 2021-22 tuition and fees, as described in earlier communications. This program is designed to provide basic access to all required course materials at the lowest price possible.’ 

This $640 price tag, and particularly whether it truly provides ‘the lowest price possible’, will be analyzed in Part 3 of this article. 

Many of the books and materials are offered on a rental basis and must be turned back in at the conclusion of the term. Remember, the idea behind SAPS Supplies is to provide basic access to all required materials to all students at the most affordable price possible. However, if students wish to purchase their books, they may do so through Follett and pay only the difference between the purchase and the rental price, since rental access is already included through SAPS Supplies.’ 

This was the first time that students were being told that Millsaps would be renting out textbooks. Since Millsaps did not to specify which books will be offered on a rental basis (or elaborate on why some books are rentals and some not), it left students unable to make alternative arrangements before the semester started. The email explanation itself was a little confusing—if ‘rental access is already included through SAPS Supplies’, but bought (non-rental) books aren’t included, then wouldn’t the natural assumption be that all textbooks covered by SAPS Supplies are rentals? And if so, why not be honest about that?   

If you need a different format than the default for a particular class, you can contact […] the bookstore.  If necessary, [the bookstore] can get a print copy of the text (if available) and keep your digital access open until the print text arrives.’ 

Though it may seem as though Millsaps will freely provide you with your preferred print/digital format so long as you contact the bookstore, this isn’t the case. With the exception of students who need specific accommodations, for example a print book to aid with dyslexia, all students who want their textbooks in a format different to the default for their class will be asked to pay for the alternative format by themselves. If a class has provided a digital textbook and you want a print textbook, you will have to pay the full price for it yourself (though the bookstore may help you order it), on top of the fees you are already paying Millsaps. 

The email also explained that the choice between digital and print textbooks was made by each professor. Based on some professors’ earlier protests to the Saps Supplies email, it seemed as if the provision of digital textbooks was a surprise to faculty, too. A copy of the textbook ordering form that I obtained, which professors used to order course materials in April of this year, had no clear indication of where professors could specify their preference for digital or print books. And while some allowances should be made, since any newly implemented policy will necessarily bring about confusion, there have also been cases of digital textbooks being delivered where print copies were specified by the professor, or print textbooks simply not arriving on time. 

Part 2: Is This Policy in the Students’ Best Interests? 

Dean Dunn’s email began with the assertion that this new textbook policy “is an equity, retention and student success initiative” to ensure “that all students have basic access to all required course materials and textbooks”. It’s true that prior to this textbook policy, there were students who, unable or otherwise unwilling to pay for certain textbooks, completed their courses without the required reading materials. It’s also true that the College’s solution does something to address this problem, while also providing more transparency to students about the actual cost of attendance. Though this policy was a well-intentioned act born from the College’s interest in addressing a serious problem, that doesn’t mean that it maximizes student welfare. 

Putting aside Millsaps’ communicative shortcomings, the new textbook policy reflects its lack of student input. The policy’s weaknesses are immediately obvious: some students learn better with digital textbooks, while others learn better with print textbooks. The ideal policy would then allow students to choose for themselves, but Millsaps’ policy places an additional financial strain on students who want their textbooks in a format different to what’s provided by the College. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, the decision between renting and buying books is important for students as they consider which textbooks they will need in preparation for comprehensive exams in their senior year. Under the textbook policy, seniors may find themselves needing a textbook that they used in their freshman year, only to lack access to it—what allowances will Millsaps make in this case, or will seniors be expected to rent the past three years’ worth of textbooks again?  

Earlier in this article, I promised to address how Millsaps reneged on their implied promise that they would provide us with materials equal in value to what we would otherwise individually purchase by providing digital textbooks and rentals. I address this simply: I prefer to buy physical copies of my textbooks, so given that all of my provided textbooks this semester were rentals, and half of them were digital, Millsaps has not provided me with the materials I wanted. Even if I were to accept that Millsaps has offered me the option of physical ownership (ownership that comes at an additional cost to me), they have not delivered on the promised cheaper costs. This leads me to Part 3. 

Part 3: Analyzing the $640 Price Tag 

Upon hearing the $640 price tag mentioned in Dean Dunn’s email, I was immediately skeptical. If we divide $640 into the Fall and Spring semesters, that leaves $320 per semester. I’m a junior student, and I can confidently say that over the past five semesters (including one summer class), I have collectively spent less than $640, with minimal rentals, which I limited to classes that weren’t for my major. Here’s a look at my textbook costs for this semester: 

*Notes & Disclaimers: Money amounts have been rounded to the closest dollar. All “rent” options are for the duration of the semester. All options are paperback hard copies unless otherwise noted (e.g. digital, hardback). All Amazon/Alternative Source prices do not take into account shipping fees. Prices for used books from Amazon often fluctuate as used books are bought up; prices may have risen since the time of writing this article. 

Student #1 (Me): Government/Philosophy Double Major. Junior student, 20 credits 

Book: What I Got Millsaps Bookstore Options (as presented on the Millsaps Bookstore Website) Amazon/Alternative Sources 
A: Digital rental Rent digital $54 Rent digital $42 

Buy digital $58  
Buy used $60 

Rent paperback $19 
Buy new $69 
B: Digital rental Rent digital $36 Buy digital $44 

Rent digital $32  
Rent $29  

Buy used $44 
Buy new $58 
C: Paperback rental Rent $83  

Buy used $156 
Buy new $208 
Rent paperback $40 

Buy used $144 
Buy new $191 
D: Paperback rental Rent used $52 
Rent new $104  

Buy used $98 
Buy new $130 
Rent $17  

Buy used $30 
Buy new $98 
Total Cost Most expensive option: $428  

Cheapest option: $225  

What I received from Millsaps: $277 
Most expensive: $416

Cheapest: $105  

What I would personally choose: $222 (possibly $118, if I don’t want to buy book C, which costs $144)  

*Note: Textbooks A and B were meant to be in print, as specified by my professor. Since they’ve yet to arrive at the time of writing this article, I’ve listed them as the digital versions that arrived. 

As you can see, unless I purposefully choose only the most expensive textbook options, most textbook combinations, either from the Millsaps Bookstore or alternative sources, comes out to far less than $320. If I were to buy my textbooks myself, taking into account my personal textbook preferences, my costs would come out to somewhere between $144-$222, meaning I could have saved up to half of what I am being charged by Millsaps.  

Upon discussing the textbook policy with some friends, two possibilities for which a $320 semesterly fee might help students cost-save were suggested: STEM classes may require textbooks that are generally more expensive (my classes are, after all, all in the humanities this semester), and freshmen may also be more likely to take classes that require a variety of textbooks/materials, not to mention they may also have more difficulty acquiring used books from upperclassmen.  

As such, I reached out to some other students and analyzed their textbook costs: 

Student #2: Math/Economics Double Major. Senior student, 21 credits 

Book Millsaps Bookstore Options Amazon/Alternative Sources 
Calculator Buy new $40 Buy new $33 
Buy used $25 
A: Digital rental Rent digital $74 From Vitalsource: 
Rent digital $60 
Buy digital $80 
B: Digital rental Rent digital $55 Rent $47 
Buy new (hardcover) $181  

From Vitalsource: 
Rent digital $45 Buy digital $75 
Total CostWhat student received: $169 Cheapest: $130  

Preferred: $25 (student stated that they would have only bought a used calculator, as they knew students who had taken the class previously, and would have borrowed textbooks from them) 

Student #3: Freshman student, 18 credits 

Book Millsaps Bookstore Options Amazon/Alternative Sources 
A: Digital rental Rent digital $72 From Vitalsource: 
Rent digital $63 
B: Print Buy new $29 
Buy used $22 
From Vitalsource: 
Rent digital $14 
Buy digital $18  

From Chegg: 
Rent $26 
Total CostWhat student received: $101 Cheapest: $77  

Preferred: As a freshman, student felt that the $320 textbook price-tag was high, but was also unsure as to whether future semesters would make up for the cost; ultimately they felt that the policy’s automatic provision of correct textbooks and limited impact (due to the student’s scholarships) made the policy a decent choice. 

Student #4: Digital Arts Major, Minors in Music and Creative Writing. Junior student, 16 credits  

Book Millsaps Bookstore Options Amazon/Alternative Sources 
A: Not received Buy new $85 Rent $60 

Buy used $61 
B: Rental Rent $53 

Buy Used $100 
Buy new $108 
Buy used $25 

Rent $51 
Total CostWhat student received: $0/$53 (Student has yet to receive textbook A. Textbook B was offered as a rental, but student was required to own a copy for class, so decided to borrow the book from a friend, and did not rent nor buy it from the bookstore)  Note: As an art major, student also expected to spend an additional $200-300 out of pocket on personal art supplies for their junior seminar Cheapest: $85  

Preferred: $0 (student had friends who had previously taken the class, and would have borrowed their textbooks); +$200-300 on art supplies 

Student #5: Biology Major. Junior student, 16 credits. 

Book Millsaps Bookstore Options Amazon/Alternative Sources 
A: Paperback rental Buy new $15 Buy digital $5  

Buy new $8 
Buy used $2 
B: Digital rental Rent digital $39 Buy used (hardcover) $21
Buy new (hardcover) $97 
C: Paperback rental Buy new $138 Buy new: $117 
D: Digital rental Rent digital $59 Rent digital $30 
Buy digital $36  
 
Buy new $70  
Buy used (loose leaf) $45 
Buy new (loose leaf) $49 
E: Digital rental Rent digital $61 From Vitalsource: 
Rent digital: $50 
F: Digital rental Rent digital $45 From Vitalsource or Cengage: 
Rent digital $39 
Rent $49 
Total Cost What student received: <$357 (though student received textbooks A and C as print copies, they were rentals, and not sold to them) Cheapest: $169  

Preferred: ≈$284 (student stated that they would have rented or purchased them off Amazon) 

For every student whose textbook costs I reported here, with the exception of Student #5, whose actual costs are hard to calculate, the value of what they received from the bookstore was significantly less than the average textbook cost of $320 that Millsaps reported and charged students. By no means do these students represent the entirety of the Millsaps student body, nor am I suggesting that Millsaps is lying about the estimated average cost of textbooks per student. It’s certainly possible that there are students who benefit and cost-save under this policy, and I have met students who appreciated not having to order books on their own. My point, then, is that though Millsaps may have aimed to aid students, a blanket policy such as this one will necessarily harm students as well.  

Part 4: Concluding Thoughts 

The core issue that this textbook policy addresses is the problem of students not having access to the textbooks they need for class. And that’s not Millsaps’ fault—the textbook industry at large has become so profit-driven that textbooks now seem to come out with new editions every few years, more expensive but not necessarily improved. Some are exclusively released as (costly) digital rentals or with “bundles” of (often unnecessary) additional course materials at exorbitant prices. Millsaps is rightly concerned that this is impacting students’ chances of succeeding in class.  

But this policy does not adequately support students. Millsaps’ communication about the policy was insufficiently transparent throughout the process of its implementation, and for many students, including myself, it plainly comes out to be a financial disadvantage. Textbook policies such as ours have been implemented in many colleges (often by Follett, who comes out as the only winner in this equation, since they acquire a monopoly over the college students’ textbook market), and students at other colleges have also reported problems in their college papers. Consider University of North Florida, where one student made a price comparison of their bookstore’s products (unfspinnaker.com/81270/news/why-is-the-bookstore-so-expensive/). Or New York University, where the change in bookstore operations lead to confusion about additional charges to students (nyunews.com/news/2019/03/07/hidden-textbook-fees-anger-students/). The example from New York University is particularly important, because the article reveals that the university has an opt-out option to their textbook policy. Millsaps should strongly consider providing the same option to our student body. 

Personally, I would not oppose a small tuition raise aimed at addressing the problem of access to textbooks. What annoys me is that while this policy has been sold as a student success initiative, it does literally nothing but burden me. Here are a variety of alternative ways Millsaps might consider supporting student success: 

  • Budgeting for subsidies. For example, a small tuition increase might go to a textbook fund that Millsaps can then use to place a cap on textbook prices. (e.g. Millsaps might place a cap of $100. Students would pay up to $100 for a textbook from the bookstore, and Millsaps would pay the remainder of the cost for textbooks that exceed that cost.)  
  • Millsaps could buy more copies of textbooks and place them in the library.  
  • Ultimately, the most cost-saving policy that is in the interest of students seems, to me, to be a hands-off approach. By letting students source their own textbooks, Millsaps would allow students to: 
    • Use the library (some professors reserve a few copies for their classes) 
    • Utilize external scholarships (some students have their textbook fees covered by external organizations) 
    • Buy/rent used books (from cheaper sites. See Part 3) 
    • Buy/borrow used books (from graduating seniors/other students) 
    • Buy older editions (these are typically cheaper, and professors are often receptive to their use) 
    • Earn money back by selling books at the end of the semester (since many of the books provided by Saps Supplies are rentals or limited electronic access codes, this method of recuperating textbook costs is no longer available to students) 
  • Millsaps may also facilitate the exchange of used books by hosting an online forum where students can post about textbooks they no longer need 

To reiterate: There may be some students who are benefiting from this policy, and who prefer it—I’ve met students who appreciated the simplicity of not having to order their own books. Even without this policy, Millsaps has (and should have) a clear interest in making textbooks more accessible to students—there are many ways that the College can try to achieve this. But since the new textbook policy also imposes a distinct financial disadvantage to some students, Millsaps should at the very least consider revising their policy to allow for an opt-out option. Otherwise, the only clear winner in this equation is Follett, the bookstore company who has now cinched our student body’s entire textbook market. 

9/29/2021 Update: A previous edition of the article improperly implied that the semesterly charge for textbooks was $640, instead of its actual cost of $320. Language has been changed to reflect this error. Misspellings of the textbook company Follett were also corrected.

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