March 28, 2020

New Research Report Looks at Automatic Billing of Students For College Textbooks

From the United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG):

Tuition isn’t the only cost crushing college students with debt: textbooks are a huge out of pocket expense. And, the way students pay for textbooks is changing. Publishers have entered “inclusive access” agreements with hundreds of colleges to charge students for course materials at the beginning of the semester, purportedly at a significant discount.

The report finds] these promises fall flat — or come with big trade offs in the fine print. The report, Automatic textbooks billing: an offer students can’t refuse?,  reveals insufficient or disappearing discounts, structures designed to force students into the program, and missing information. This all leaves students, professors, and college administrators in the lurch.”

U.S. PIRG Education Fund undertook a first of its kind review of these contracts covering 31 colleges across the country, and affecting more than 700,000 undergraduate students.

The report, Automatic textbooks billing: an offer students can’t refuse?,  reveals insufficient or disappearing discounts, structures designed to force students into the program, and missing information. This all leaves students, professors, and college administrators in the lurch.

Key findings of the report include:

Nearly half of automatic billing contracts fail to fully disclose their discount structure. Students and faculty will struggle to tell how significant a discount they are getting. When contracts disclosed the discount, it was undercut by the use of a national automatic billing book list that could be hard for members of the campus community to access.

Publishers could veto campus marketing materials in at least one contract at 42 percent of schools, potentially leaving students and faculty in the dark about discounts or how the program works.

68 percent of publisher contracts include a clause eliminating, reducing the discount, or cancelling the contract for falling short of a quota of students enrolled in the automatic billing charge. Quotas were as high as 90% of students enrolled in a course.

33 percent of contracts had the potential for annual uncapped price increases, and 21 percent had the potential for twice-annual price increases.

One-fifth of automatic billing contracts limited the number of students who could purchase print versions of their materials, typically capped at 15% of the course.

In the review, U.S. PIRG Education Fund examined automatic billing contracts for 31 public colleges with publishers, bookstore chains, and ed tech companies. U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s solution is straightforward: rather than using automatic billing in college classrooms, colleges should maintain or revert to options that give faculty and students the ability to buy course materials, new or used, from a variety of sources at their discretion.

Direct to Summary, Petition Drive

Direct to Full Text Report
30 pages; PDF.

Direct to Additional Data From the Report (.ZIP)

Check out the repository of open records requests to look at the contracts that informed our report, and see what automatic billing looks like at your college’s peer institutions.

Gary Price About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.

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