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CCSC Is Lukewarm on Proposed Tuition Charge For Textbooks

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.

A tuition increase seems simple enough… or does it?

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:

$600?

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.

Another Way?

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:

  • A centralized market for secondhand textbooks
  • A free lending system for books in classes with stable syllabi (like LitHum, CC, foundational classes for certain majors). If students return the books they had been provided through the tuition charge, Columbia can build this lending system. However, space limitations do exist in our libraries/buildings, and the FLIP libraries at Barnard and Columbia have not fared well.
  • Having departments develop open source textbooks for classes, which the Barnard Econ department is working on.
  • Having a smaller tuition hike that cannot be opted out of

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.

Updates

  • Singer also asked members for their ideas on how services across Columbia Health (Medical Center, CPS, Alice Health, etc.) can be better integrated in the short-term. They did not have much to say, although Gender and Sexuality Rep. Kwolanne Felix said that students’ preferred names and pronouns should be explicitly shared with medical practitioners so that trans and non-binary students are not misgendered.
  • USenate: USenator Danielle Resheff and 2021 Rep. Aja Johnson helped launch an initiative to distribute free pads and tampons to bathrooms throughout campus (see earlier discussion here), to be restocked regularly.
  • Finance: The CCSC co-sponsorship form is now live, and a whole series of debates can now be put to rest. Applications are due February 19!
  • Policy: The committee is outlining SVR workshops that will specifically cover “gray areas,” and will eventually hand off the project to administrative departments.
    • The metrocard program drew over 500 responses, but there are only ~350 spots. There’s going to be a lottery, but the good news is the demonstrated interest will help expand the fund in the future.
    • Small groups, art-based programming will be piloted towards the end of NSOP (as per previous discussions). If all goes well, it may be added to pre-orientation.
  • Class of 2020: In addition to a whole bunch of events, 2020 is establishing a fund, from its own budget, that will support (fun, unifying, etc.) events proposed by members of the class. This seems to be something new for classes!
  • Class of 2022: “We have a couple things cooking.”

The many-sided problem of textbook costs and how students grapple with them is not so innocuous as the picture makes it to be.

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5 Comments

  • anon says:

    @anon How about just make everything free on line.

  • Mr. P says:

    @Mr. P Great, students on full financial aid telling students who aren’t to pay for their textbooks. Not everyone without aid can afford more goddam tuition.
    Also, what does being in a sorority have to do with getting textbook PDFs? You can find them with like 5 minutes of googling or posting in a class Facebook group.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Awful. Don’t raise my tuition.

  • No. says:

    @No. BAD IDEA DON’T RAISE TUITION COLUMBIA IS UNAFFORDABLE AS IS

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous FLIP library at Barnard ~is~ doing well!

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