With the start of a new semester, students are faced with a slew of obligatory expenses like laundry detergent, pens, notebooks and, of course, textbooks. Recently, professors in almost every discipline are transitioning from mandating the purchase of physical textbooks to requiring one-time use digital access codes. The codes are distinct serial numbers that give students access to online materials, such as homework assignments and quizzes, and are often bundled with the required reading for the course. Unlike textbooks, which can be purchased from different sellers, printed as a PDF or even held on reserve in the Binghamton University Libraries to mitigate costs, there are no other possible methods for obtaining access codes.
On average, these digital codes cost students $100, per class, per semester. For students nationwide, these additional expenses make the heavy burden of tuition considerably worse. Because these codes give students access to homework and quizzes, a large portion of their grade for the class is dependent on their ability to purchase them, and oftentimes there is no “opt out” option for students who simply cannot afford them.
It is not difficult to see why professors would require digital access codes. Online homework platforms all offer instant feedback to the student, and homework and quizzes are automatically graded. The time and effort that previously accompanied handwritten homework assignments is now a thing of the past, and the immediate response is undeniably convenient for the student. However, if websites like WeBWorK and myCourses are offering similar services for free, why are students still being forced to pay hundreds of dollars to do homework?
As students cut costs on physical textbooks, companies such as McGraw-Hill Education, Pearson and WebAssign all secure revenue from selling access codes to students, effectively eliminating any consumer choice. Nevertheless, is it right for universities and professors to be participating in this “textbook industry” with full knowledge of the immense financial burden it places on students?
For example, a fellow Binghamton University student was required to purchase an access code for each of his five classes, which amounted to a total of $500. He told me that he couldn’t afford all of these codes, so he was forced to look for other alternatives. He ended up asking his professors if they would open all of the assignments due for the semester so he could finish all of the homework during the two-week free trial period. Three out of the four professors he had asked refused to do so.
His experience is certainly not unique, and when students are driven to these extremes, it is an indication that their education is being compromised. A student should not be pushed into a position where they feel the need to do 15 weeks of homework in two weeks.
For students who are in a financial position in which they cannot afford digital access codes, there should always be an easily accessible alternative. Furthermore, if there is a feasible way to assign homework without costing students hundreds of dollars each year, it should be employed regardless of any potential inconveniences it may cause professors. Ultimately, universities should be working with students, not textbook companies, to create a fair system for their education.
Theodora Catrina is a sophomore majoring in mathematics.