Letter to the Editor: Course affordability involves more than textbooks

Six months ago, in a hallway in East Fairchild, I wrote a petition about textbook affordability based on a simple idea: Students already pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition — what is that tuition money for if it does not cover the crucial materials our professors use to teach us?

It’s important to me that this work has a wide reach. So what has happened in those six months, and where do we still need to go?

After the night the textbook affordability petition was introduced, students from different groups on campus formed an unofficial coalition. For a while, our work was comprised of meeting after meeting. We talked with staff from all over campus: vice president for student affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin, Medill lecturer Karen Springen and other representatives from Faculty Senate, financial aid officers, representatives from Quartet Copies, IT personnel, librarians, professors who were already making their courses financially accessible and a couple associate deans.

The Books for Cats program was extended — twice — and expanded.

One member of our cohort compiled a list of every course in the School of Education and Social Policy and calculated the cost of each one. They found that the same class could have wildly different expenses from quarter to quarter depending on who taught it. We realized that there was also very little professor accountability — some professors hadn’t even submitted their syllabi to the registrar.

Moving forward, we need to move our focus away from physical textbooks and toward online materials, course packets and other add-on materials that have non-negotiable prices.

What we’ve found in our research is that a textbook alone can be found for much cheaper when it’s used, rented or borrowed from the library. But it’s impossible to get a used software license, and the contents of course packets can change from quarter to quarter, even for the same professor. The prices are inescapable and nearly impossible to find discounts for.

Progress is slow. The fact is, we’re never going to see a day when we’re happy with the cost of course materials unless everyone takes it upon themselves to speak up when they’re dissatisfied. It is imperative that students struggling to afford their class materials empower themselves.

If you really can’t afford something, let your professor know. It is inconvenient, and it can be uncomfortable. But if you can’t afford a course packet, they should work with you. Ask if they’d be willing to give you a specific list of all the materials in the course packet, because you can probably get electronic copies of at least half of them through the library’s resources. If the course packet contains chapter segments from a specific book, you could see if the library has it or if the book itself is fair use. If your professor is unwilling, go above them to their department chair or the associate dean. For software, contact the company yourself and see if you can negotiate a group discount. You can connect them with the department head for the class you’re taking to secure a group license for future students.

If your professor is using expensive third-party software, connect them to Canvas support. Chances are, Canvas already has a built-in feature that does what they want. Northwestern pays for this service and it doesn’t always get used to its fullest extent. When we’re forced to pay for yet another service that assigns and grades our homework automatically, it’s as if we’re paying tuition twice.

Be a nuisance. If you are being asked to pay for Sapling Learning or some other homework software, band together with some other classmates and go talk to your professor about it. Refuse to do homework you can’t afford.

Warn first-years that Books for Cats and some other University initiatives that alleviate costs for course materials do not apply to upperclassmen, and that they need to be prepared to both advocate for themselves and implement these practical, short-term solutions.

We are lucky to attend a school with plentiful resources and receptive administrators. Our University administration didn’t hear our petition that night and do nothing. In the past six months, I’ve seen a shakedown of this issue from top to bottom. Meetings I didn’t even know about were taking place between academic deans and staff all over campus.

We need to keep that energy going. We need to hold our educators accountable and teach them to teach us more equitably. It can be done, but it starts with the moment we say, “Enough.”

Kimani Isaac, Communication sophomore