Survey highlights student problems with course material costs at Temple

Temple students were shown to be more concerned with the extra costs of taking classes, while feeling less supported than state and nationwide students, according to surveys in April and September 2023.

Temple Libraries surveyed 242 Temple students in the Spring and Fall 2023 semesters in collaboration with Affordable Learning PA to assess students’ feelings and experiences with purchasing course materials for classes. | FERNANDO GAXIOLA / THE TEMPLE NEWS.

Temple Libraries surveyed 242 Temple students in the Spring and Fall 2023 semesters in collaboration with Affordable Learning PA to assess students’ feelings and experiences with purchasing course materials for classes.

The April and September 2023 surveys — funded by Affordable Learning PA, an organization of librarians and academics working toward textbook affordability for students — found that Temple students experience a higher level of concern about the cost of course materials compared to state and national levels. 

The survey also concluded that almost all Temple students attempt to reduce the cost of materials and nearly 40 percent will go without the required materials to avoid expenses entirely.

“We want to create, across the state of Pennsylvania, more awareness about how the cost of course materials is going to have an impact on students beyond just paying for those materials,” said Steven Bell, associate university librarian. “It can have an impact on what major they decide, it can have an impact on what course they might take, on whether or not in the course if they decide not to buy a textbook.”

Bell hopes, in addition to contributing to the statewide data gathered for ALPA, the survey helps inform faculty of the problems students face and leads them toward resources outside of the commercial textbook.

As one of the 14 participating institutions, Temple sent the survey to a random set of 2,000 students in two-week time frames in April and September 2023 to gather student responses through a combination of open-ended and multiple choice questions.

Fifty percent of students expressed “moderate to extreme” concern about meeting their course materials cost for that semester, compared to 44 percent of all Pennsylvania students and 30 percent of students nationwide.

“I’m broke and have to pay for my own [stuff],” said Joseph Cooper, a sophomore finance major. “This year I have to pay for my food and next year I have to pay my own rent. I can’t afford to drop 200 on multiple classes, which is what some of those classes require.”

Only seven percent of Temple students reported their financial aid covers some of the course materials costs, whereas 23 percent of Pennsylvania students and 54 percent of students nationwide reported their financial aid would.

Ninety-nine percent of Temple students have attempted to reduce the cost of course materials. The survey found that 82 percent of respondents looked for a free version online, making it the most common strategy.

“Last semester I had to buy a $120 textbook and it was way too much.” said Massin Labri, a junior political science major and Chinese minor. “I only used it for a semester, it’s just not worth it. If it’s for a class that’s my minor, it doesn’t make sense. I’m already paying a lot for college tuition. The book should be accessible or it should be provided.”

Even with the different strategies a student might utilize to lower costs, 53 percent of Temple students said they occasionally or frequently do not purchase a required textbook to avoid the cost entirely. Forty-four percent of Pennsylvania students and 37 percent of students nationwide also said they occasionally or frequently chose to go without required materials.

Bell believes plenty of faculty care about the material cost of their courses, but aren’t aware of their options to reduce that cost.

Temple Libraries provides financial incentives for professors to lower the cost of their courses through Textbook Affordability Project awards, grants of $500-$1,500 to professors transitioning from textbooks to free resources. The North Broad Press, a publishing project, gives grants to professors to write their own publicly available textbooks.

Other Open Educational Resource options include Openstax and the Open Textbook Library, and free Etextbooks available through Temple Libraries.

Jingwei Wu, an epidemiology and biostatistics professor, has received a TAP award from the library three times within the past four years to completely remove the cost of textbooks, which are often $120, from his courses. 

Wu conducted a similar survey for his own courses after receiving his first grant in 2019 and found that while 60 percent of his students purchased the required textbook, 75 percent found the textbook useful, proving to him that the resources were worthwhile but weren’t accessible, he said.

Wu re-surveyed his students after his transition to an Openstax textbook and found that 85 percent used the free textbook.

“The students appreciated, not only [being] released from the worry about financial constraint, but it also increased their interest in the studies,” Wu said. 

Matt Hall teaches “The World of Sign Languages,” a class he began using OERs in part because he was aware of the financial burden students may take on from course materials. Hall also believes, as a hearing person, he can’t position himself as an expert on the deaf and hard of hearing community – creating his own resources allowed him to center the community in the class.

Hall, a communication sciences and disorders professor, used the money from his TAP award to work with different interpreters and conduct interviews with deaf and hard of hearing people from around the world, who all use different sign languages. 

There was no existing resource that would give the students the same experience, so he took the opportunity to create his own, he said.

“I’m pretty committed to [no cost classes,]” Hall added. “I’m not always in control of what I teach. Sometimes I get an assignment where I have to coordinate with another instructor, which was the case last year. But even when that’s the case, I try to push my fellow instructors to see, why are we insisting? What is the value? Are there alternatives?”

The library relies on faculty volunteering information about their courses to track how many classes use OERs. Out of 12,000 courses offered this semester, there are 193 records of faculty using OERs.

While faculty will always be in control of the resources they require in their classes, the state government may be able to provide more support to the financial issue. 

Colorado’s state government provides support on textbook affordability, which Bell believes Pennsylvania should do as well. Colorado has provided grants to multiple institutions through the Colorado OER Grant Program to adopt OER into higher education.

These resources aren’t a perfect fit for every course. Alissa Smethers requires textbooks for her nutrition classes; she considered transitioning to OERs before and tried working with library staff to do so, but was unsuccessful.

“It’s hard to find open resources that are tailored specifically to the science of nutrition,” said Smethers, a social and behavioral sciences professor. “A comprehensive textbook that we can use across sections, that we know students are getting that consistent, basic knowledge — we can all use the same source, we know it’s been reviewed.”

Smethers believes OERs can remove some financial burden for students, but textbooks remain necessary to meet specific competencies of the courses.

“The commercial textbook industry has a big head start on us,” Bell said “We need to look at where there are pockets within the institution where the results of this survey can have an impact in encouraging us to look at other options. It’s a spectrum of options from things that cost a lot of money to things that are free. Where can we find ourselves on that spectrum?”

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