Jovonate Cummings majored in accounting and finance at Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio, where one of his toughest assignments was managing his own tight budget.
Cummings and his five siblings were raised by a single mom in Cleveland in a low-income household with very little money to spare to help with his college costs. During his first semester at Hocking, he says there were days when he went hungry because paying for school expenses used up money he needed for food.
Despite those challenges, Cummings persisted in his studies, becoming the first in his family to graduate from college.
“I have a whole bunch of support back at home: friends, family, you know, always supporting me no matter what I do,” Cummings says. “That’s what’s keeping me going every day.”
"Unfortunately for some students, financial hardships like the ones Cummings faced can mean an end to their dreams of getting a college degree. In a January 2018 survey in of 569 applicants to a private student loan provider, nearly 55 percent said they had not acquired enough money to pay for college in the 2017-2018 academic year. Of that group, 51 percent said they dropped out of school as a result. As college planning advisor Felice Rollins points out in her online article, a significant percentage of students who drop out for financial reasons owe less than $1,000 on their tuition bills. Even those who stay in school can see their graduation delayed for lack of funds."
One of the biggest obstacles struggling students face is not being able to afford their textbooks and other course materials. A July 2018 survey of 1,651 current and former college students conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of Cengage found that buying course materials ranked second only to paying for tuition as a source of financial stress. Many students reported skipping meals and trips home to visit family so they would have enough money for books. Nearly 70% reported having to get jobs to pay for their class resources, more than 40% have taken out loans, and more than 30% have enrolled in fewer classes – decisions that can impede the timely completion of their studies or lead to new financial burdens in the future.
When students do sign up for classes, the course materials affordability gap often creates another scenario that puts them at a disadvantage, as administrators at Garden City Community College (GCCC) in Garden City, Kansas, discovered.
“If students didn’t have a book scholarship through one of our programs, or it they didn’t have financial aid complete in order to get a voucher, many times they were going to class without books,” says Dr. Ryan Ruda, President at GCCC.
The situation often made these students fall behind academically, Dr. Ruda notes, and it illustrates how the lack of access to affordable course materials creates a barrier to student success.
To address this affordability challenge, both Hocking College and Garden City Community College have adopted the Cengage Unlimited program providing digital access to course materials and an all-inclusive pricing model that lowers the cost for students. Students can pay a single fee to cover all their course materials and receive them before their classes start.
Cengage Unlimited has sold more than one million subscriptions since its August 2018 commercial launch. Along with Hocking and Garden City, its institutional partners include schools like Warren County Community College in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, the University of Missouri System, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and Ultimate Medical Academy in Clearwater, Florida.
GCCC rolled out its campus-wide implementation of Cengage Unlimited in the summer of 2018. The decision to do so came after a committee that included faculty members, the bookstore manager, and representatives from the business office and financial aid office had discussed several options, Dr. Ruda says.
“We had a good number of our faculty who already had been using Cengage, so the adoption process was pretty seamless,” he said.
After consulting with several student organizations about how to structure the student fee for course materials, the committee came up with a plan to charge $8 per credit hour, which the Board of Trustees approved. A student taking 15 credit hours will spend $120 under the new system, much lower than the roughly $600 the average GCCC student was spending previously, according to data from the board.
The college invested in an upgrade of its wireless network to accommodate the program, and the course materials were embedded into its learning management system.
Initially, some GCCC faculty members were concerned about whether digital course materials would be the only option available to their students. To address those questions, the college offers students the choice of renting a physical book for just the $8 shipping fee.
Another challenge was that GCCC has some study programs, such as nursing and technical studies, for which Cengage doesn’t offer course materials. For instructors who need to use alternative course materials, the college worked with its bookstore manager to find solutions that would reduce the cost of those products for students.
“We had to make some alterations and adjustments to how we implemented this, just based upon feedback from the faculty about how we could align it with the courses they had built,” Dr. Ruda says.
Hocking College conducted a successful pilot of Cengage Unlimited in the business department last fall.
Starting in fall 2019, all full-time, first-year students will pay $300 per semester for their course materials. The student fee at Hocking covers not only online access to Cengage course materials, but also book rentals, other open-source materials and faculty-developed classroom resources.
For Hocking President Dr. Betty Young, finding effective ways to reduce the cost of college has become a more urgent mission.
“This is sort of the fourth quarter of my life – the fourth quarter of my career,” Dr. Young says. “I’d like to finish the fourth quarter with that big touchdown that really changes not just Hocking College but changes the way we as an industry think about what we’re doing when it comes to higher education.”
It’s students like Jovanate Cummings, facing financial struggles and making sacrifices to pursue their academic goals, who inspire college leaders to take bold, innovative steps to bridge the affordability gap. By harnessing the power of educational technology, many are succeeding.