Nadra Rahman reports on a proposed $600 tuition hike that would cover all required course textbooks. CCSC has…mixed feelings.
VP for Campus Services Scott Wright and other administrators have proposed a tuition hike—for now, arbitrarily set at $600 per semester—that would allow Columbia to provide students with all required textbooks and materials for their courses (via Barnes & Noble). This is aimed at helping low-income students access textbooks: for students with complete financial aid, the textbooks would be free, so many students would no longer have to worry about scrounging up funds for books and lab fees. By USenator Alfredo Dominguez’s understanding, one may opt-out of the tuition hike.
ESC reviewed the proposal last week and was not enthused (to put it mildly), but CCSC had a wider range of opinions. There were three prongs of criticism directed towards the initiative, as follow:
The $600 figure represents half of the average college student’s expenditure on textbooks; it has not been adjusted for Columbia’s population (which it should be, suggested VP Finance Adam Resheff) or finalized. Several members pointed out that they had never paid $600 for textbooks, and had always relied on PDFs, used textbooks, and other means. Also, what about about students who are not on financial aid, but who cannot afford the tuition increase? And majors that don’t have textbooks at all?
To this, Dominguez replied that the $600 increase could be opted out of, so students would not have to pay if they so desired. However, he felt that most students would not opt-out because it would be too much effort and/or they would not notice the extra charge. 2022 President Andy Baran argued that it was unsustainable to build a re-distributive program on an opt-out charge, especially “if the success of the program hinges on people not knowing they can opt out.”
And could there possibly be unintended consequences? International Students Rep. Joon Baek wondered if the initiative would change professors’ behavior—so they would be more likely to assign their own books or require more books.
On the pro side, 2019 Rep. Tarek Deida pointed out that not all students have access to the PDFs and other documents floating around campus. He said, “People in fraternities and sororities: you know there’s a big network where this stuff circulates—I’m not gonna call anyone out.” Others said that low-income students shouldn’t have to resort to illegal activity to afford their classes.
Barnes & Noble?
Another strand of the argument focused on the fact that all the books would be provided by Barnes & Noble, which would consequently offer a discounted rate to Columbia. 2021 Rep Ramsay Eyre pointed out that this would have enormous consequences for independently-owned bookstores in the neighborhood, and that Columbia has an obligation to the community in which it operates. He said, “I think for Columbia to take that money out of the local community would be irresponsible.” Later he added, “There’s an argument to be made that this benefits Columbia and Barnes & Noble execs more than it benefits students.”
In response, Dominguez felt that students should be put first: “I agree community concerns are important, but we also have to think about the students we were elected to serve and what would be the best situation for them.”
However, other students did express concerns about funneling large amounts of money to a corporate behemoth, and felt that there should be a push towards long-term solutions that do not depend on this partnership.
Members floated a few suggestions for ways to either better implement or expand the proposal, or to go in an entirely different direction entirely. They included:
Some students were taken aback by the suggestions. 2022 Rep. Leighlani Sanchez expressed frustration that it had taken this proposed tuition hike to finally hear discussion on improving textbook accessibility and wondered why these solutions hadn’t been proposed earlier. Others feared that after passing on this proposal, Council would abandon the issue entirely.
Disability Services Rep. Aaron Liberman thought that while the suggestions could work well in the long-term, the problem being addressed is immediate and needs immediate solutions—in his words, “It takes 5 million years to move a garbage can from one side of College Walk to another.” Imagine writing an open source textbook!
Dominguez was clearly testy after all the back and forth and offered a final response: “Some of you need to do more work in representing the students who elected you…it’s interesting that now people want to have a stake in how this program is implemented.” He went on to say that no one on CCSC had voiced any opposition during the months he had worked on the project.
Before this segment of the meeting wrapped up, President Jordan Singer stressed that they would aggregate and deliver all feedback to administrators.
The many-sided problem of textbook costs and how students grapple with them is not so innocuous as the picture makes it to be.