A college education isn’t cheap because of high-ticket items such as room and board and, of course, tuition, the single largest cost and prime driver of oppressive student loan debt years after graduation.
Textbooks, however, are no small expense, which is why we’ll watch with great interest a proposal by West Texas A&M University President Walter Wendler that the school in Canyon will no longer require students to buy textbooks.
In a recent letter to students, faculty and staff, Wendler said teachers and students next fall will be encouraged to use free and discounted materials from reputable online sources instead of textbooks. Students who want a hard copy of materials can buy textbooks or obtain course materials that the school will print at no charge to the students.
Wendler, who first floated this idea in 2018, is not without critics. Some professors reduced their use of expensive textbooks while others vehemently opposed the proposal as a violation of their academic freedom to select pedagogical materials. Some also complain the decision could negatively impact the school’s academic reputation and cited this decision in a faculty vote of no confidence in Wendler’s leadership after he canceled a student drag show on campus.
Wendler contends vast amounts of information is available digitally and through online licensing agreements that allow students to access course materials legally and often at no expense. The bigger issue, he says, is that institutions must explore strategies to reduce educational costs to students in small and large ways. “We need to be mindful of how these pieces fit together,” Wendler said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News. “It is real money to real people.”
Across the nation, some schools are experimenting with discounted housing or, like the Texas A&M University System, have temporarily frozen tuition and mandatory academic fees for in-state undergraduates or devised programs to reduce the likelihood of students graduating with massive debt.
But while textbooks are a small portion of overall college costs, their price tag has outpaced inflation for years. A U.S. Government Accountability Office report in 2013 documented that textbook costs soared 82% between 2002 and 2012. Textbook costs can be thousands of dollars a year and even greater if cash-strapped students put it on a credit card or roll the cost into a student loan.
Wendler said reducing expensive textbooks won’t make higher education more affordable for all students. Some areas of study may require specialized textbooks, digital materials aren’t always cheaper than traditional textbooks and experts will continue to debate whether students learn better with traditional textbooks or modern technology. Nonetheless, “we have to do things that are innovative,” said Wendler.
Students deserve a quality education at a reasonable price, and educators must work to reduce education debt.