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Peer Institutions are Taking Notes on UC’s Innovations in Textbook Savings

UC takes the approach of negotiating with publishers to get the best deal for students, but the efforts go beyond dollars.

Date: 2/23/2016 8:00:00 AM
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823

UC ingot   The University of Cincinnati is getting noticed by state educational institutions and the state capitol for efforts toward reducing student textbook costs as well as taking new approaches toward enhancing student learning.
Image of a stack of textbooks with
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

The gamut includes direct negotiations with publishers and developing learning materials beyond the old textbook and the increasing popularity of e-books.

“We have over 44,000 students who are buying books, and the novel idea is that we should be able to negotiate prices on their behalf,” says Gigi Escoe, vice provost for undergraduate affairs. “That was something that I don’t think any school in Ohio had set out to do before. There’s not a one-size-fits-all model, but the idea is that we’re negotiating with publishers on a number of fronts for our students.”

This initiative is led by Escoe and the UC Textbook Affordability Committee, represented by the Provost Office, UC Bookstores, IT@UC, Student Government, Faculty Senate, the Office of Administration and Finance and the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (CET&L).

“This initiative goes beyond saving students money,” says Escoe. “We’re looking at how to best save student costs and improve student learning. For example, we’re examining how to best train students on using readers, effectively take notes and best engage in this technology.”

The committee is first looking into strategies to reduce student costs in high enrollment courses, many of which require expensive books and materials, such as STEM-related courses, accounting or social sciences.

Image of Gigi Escoe provided by the Provost Office
Gigi Escoe

After first testing its success in a pilot program for a chemistry class, a course fee – now approved by Student Government – is leading to student savings in at least 12 courses and 100 sections, and Escoe says the idea is expanding. In the chemistry course, for example, students pay a $40 common course fee to gain access to a $120 hard-copy textbook. Course fees are now in place for some calculus courses, anatomy and physiology and an introduction to psychology course.

The committee has found that course fees are beneficial to students when the course has high enrollment; when courses have electronically consumable materials, such as graded workbooks; and when there’s been a history of students opting not to buy the materials for their coursework. Total student savings for the 2015/16 academic year is expected to reach $400,000.

IT@UC  is coordinating with UC Athletics and UC’s Gen-1 House to provide iPads to varsity athletes and to at-risk, first-generation students residing in UC’s Gen-1 House to download their course materials. That plan will get underway next fall. The program also would allow advisors to track student progress. UC currently is testing a pilot e-reader program with the UC women’s basketball team that can monitor student involvement in a course and still stay within NCAA regulations.

“This is not just an affordability initiative, it will also give instructors insight into the way students are interacting with course content,” says Chris Edwards, assistant vice president of UC Information Technologies (UCIT). “We’ll be embedding really robust analytics, so we’ll be able to tell when the student is using the textbook and how long they’re spending on those studies.”

The Division for Administration and Finance also is negotiating directly with publishers in the following areas:
  • Price/quantity
  • Delivery mechanism – Hard-copy,  Follet’s IncludED program – an initiative that delivers all required course materials, print, digital and supplies to students as part of their tuition or fees; downloadable iBooks on multiple platforms. 
  • Duration of student access to materials (for instance, allowing students to build their own e-bookshelf of materials including their notes that they can keep for several years).

“Most of the publishers are open to this,” says Escoe. “When students take notes, that’s their intellectual property and they should get to maintain it in context after a course.  Or after their access to a book goes away, they should be able to download it and save it. We’re working with publishers to solve that problem so this is much more than saving money.”

Other strategies include:

Rent-a-Text – University of Cincinnati Bookstores is in the sixth year of its Rent-A-Text Program, which provides savings up to 80 percent off the price of new textbooks. Shane Zaleski, regional manager of the UC Bookstores, says the program saved students more than $1.8 million last year. More than 24,100 books were rented, which was 28 percent of the total number of textbooks sold during the last academic school year.

Price Match Guarantee- If a student finds a lower price on an in-stock comparable condition textbook locally or online the UC Bookstores will match the price right at the register. While some restrictions apply, this program is showing great potential in continuing to reduce the cost of course materials to students.

Home-Grown E-Books – The Center for Excellence in eLearning is launching its first eTextbook Project. A group of 10 faculty from four different colleges or units – the College of Nursing, McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, UC Blue Ash College and Division of Professional Practice – will work throughout spring and summer to develop their own interactive textbooks using iBooks Author, avoiding the high cost of going through a publisher. The team will be supported by eight UC instructional designers and instructional technologists. “The goal is to equip faculty with the tools that they need to develop e-texts with open-source material for either no cost or a very low cost for the students,” says Edwards. "Not only are e-textbooks more affordable than traditional textbooks, but they also provide a more engaging experience for students, giving faculty the power to create content to connect with pedagogy.”

The completed e-books will downloadable on multiple platforms. The project is expected to launch in fall 2016.

E-books – UC is negotiating with publishers to lower prices and include consideration for multi-year access to materials. UC also is partnering with The Ohio State University and the University of Oklahoma to identify a course taught on all three college campuses for the development and support of a shared e-book.

Custom Packaging Arrangements with Publishers – Academic units will work directly with publishers to customize packaged materials. Customized publications reduce the cost to students by limiting the total volume of material that they must purchase. Lab manuals, in particular, can be customized to the particular experiments that our professors plan for their students to conduct.

Savings from custom packaged publications vary widely but can range up to 70 percent off the combined retail price for the standard materials that students would otherwise have needed to purchase.
Image shows a book open on a desk in a library with a pair of glasses on top of an open book.
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Efforts made by UC’s Carl H. Lindner College of Business in its introductory economics courses serve as a significant example of custom packaging arrangements in combination with digital formats to reduce costs. After determining the appropriate learning materials, the Linder College of Business arranged an agreement with a publisher for a customized bundle of textbooks and online materials at a savings of approximately 50 percent per student from the combined retail prices. This resulted in total savings of over $150,000 (or $60 per student). The college is now exploring similar opportunities to bundle textbooks for its other core business courses.

Textbook adoption deadlines – Deadlines for professors to select textbooks will be set to provide ample time for UC Bookstores to stock cheaper, used textbooks, saving students an average of 50 percent off the retail price.
“It really is a variety of strategies that we’re using, but we’re taking on the position that we represent our students from now on, and that’s a new idea,” says Escoe. “It’s an opportunity to develop new tools to enhance learning. It’s an entirely new approach from an institutional standpoint. We’re not doing the same thing for every course, but we’re trying to find the best solution for every course to lower student cost and strengthen learning.”