- Student and consumer groups are pushing back on a proposed merger between education publishing giants McGraw-Hill and Cengage, according to letters sent to the Department of Justice earlier this week.
- They urge the department to block the merger, saying it will reduce competition in the textbook market and eliminate the opportunity to access used books or share materials, resulting in fewer choices and higher prices for students.
- The challenge comes as publishers expand their digital offerings through learning platforms as well as digital textbooks, raising broader concerns about the affordability of and access to materials.
College leaders are "caught in the middle" of publishers' shifting pricing strategies and students' demand for lower-cost options, Phil Hill, co-founder of Mindwires Consulting, told Education Dive.
"The majority of textbook decisions are still in the hands of individual faculty," he said. "In many cases, executives are fearful of getting involved in this area because it'll feel like they are trying to take away academic freedom for faculty to choose their own materials."
One way they are walking that line is through inclusive access deals, which fold the cost of materials into tuition and ensure students can access them. They are becoming more popular among colleges.
"It gives a way to say, 'This can really reduce price, but it's not as radical as OER (open educational resources) and it allows us to work with the publisher and not fight against them,' which indirectly pits them against the faculty," Hill said.
But students and student advocates say that model isn't a good deal for students, although it typically includes a discount.
In their letter to the Justice Department, student leaders at more than 40 colleges said the use of subscription services, access codes and inclusive access models is an effort by publishers to "strong-arm students into buying materials."
"You shouldn’t have to pay to participate in class," said Kaitlyn Vitez, director of a higher-ed affordability campaign at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), which helped co-write the consumer group letter and helped get signatures on the student letter.
She advises colleges to evaluate whether OER could meet their needs and to look into creating their own alternative to publishers' homework submission and grading platforms.
Access codes, in particular, have been a sticking point. "Because that access code in many cases is going to have a homework supplement … there really is no choice for a student if they can't get that material," said Nick Sengstaken, chief of staff for the undergraduate student government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He has been active in several efforts on that campus to build support for lower-cost alternatives such as OER, course reserves and library resources. That includes a petition for the university to prioritize textbook affordability, which he said has been signed by 350 professors so far.
Their concerns come in light of skyrocketing textbook prices in recent years. Two-thirds of students in a 2013 survey by U.S. PIRG said they didn't buy a textbook because they felt it was too expensive. Of that group, nearly all (94%) were worried that choice would hurt their grades.
Students are spending less on materials, in part by using free alternatives. That's something 20% of students said they did in the 2017-18 National Association of College Stores' Student Watch report.
Student advocates say a strong secondhand rental textbook market is critical for access and equity.
The publishers, meanwhile, say scale will help them increase access.
"By combining, the merger will enable both companies to expand the missions of their respective affordability programs," a spokesperson for Cengage and McGraw-Hill Education said in a statement emailed to Education Dive.
McGraw-Hill estimates inclusive access accounted for the bulk of $55 million in savings for students in 2018 due to its affordability initiatives. Cengage estimates its Cengage Unlimited program has saved students more than $60 million during the 2018-2019 academic year.
Mindwires' Hill expects OER adoption to grow in response to the merger and Pearson’s announcement in July that it would prioritize digital texts. But OER covers a relatively small percentage of students and can require a significant upfront investment of time from faculty.
"I'm not saying the secondhand market as it is currently defined has to continue forever," he added. "What I am saying is you (universities) have to maintain student choice and students' ability to make decisions about where to get their textbooks so that they can manage cost and what they really need."