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Bookshop introduces new service to make textbook selection easier, cheaper

Many students are required to buy expensive text books for their classes, such as this $245 book used in microbiology. Photo by Andrew Tucker

By MJ Old

Many students are required to buy expensive text books for their classes, such as this $245 book used in microbiology. Photo by Andrew Tucker

This semester the Pioneer Bookshop is rolling out a new system for professors to “adopt” textbooks with the goal of decreasing the prices that students pay each semester. Professors will now search for textbooks using an interface and database created by Verba, a company founded as a Harvard student government project to improve textbook affordability.

Grinnell students sometimes struggle to pay for their assigned books. Hamza Ilahi ’23 was assigned a $225 textbook for introductory French this year. “I went to the financial aid office and I asked for their help and they were like, ‘Oh, you can take your loan which you refused,’” Ilahi said. “No book is worth that much to be honest.”

Others see textbook pricing as a problem of inclusivity. “There’s a big disparity in how much you spend based on what you’re majoring in, and I think that’s problematic in terms of people being able to major in STEM versus social sciences,” said Alanis Gonzalez ’22. For example, Essential Cell Biology (required for BIO-251) costs more than $100, while the five books on Greek History required for CLS-255 cost $60 in total, according to the prices currently listed on the Pioneer Bookshop website.

Some professors are aware of the challenges of textbook cost and are taking steps to help. “My hope is that one day I will develop my own materials that are open-access for anyone to use,” said Professor Mervat Youssef, French & Arabic, who does not require any textbooks for her Media and the Middle East course and uses an old edition for introductory Arabic.

Youssef remembers worrying about paying for textbooks and materials when she was in undergrad. She studied applied art and thus had to buy expensive paints and ink on top of textbooks. “One of my resolutions was to not have someone go through that if I can,” Youssef said.

Faculty have a lot of power over the cost of their student’s textbooks. Beyond picking the books and editions they require, how fast they inform the bookshop also affects prices. Since every college and university in the U.S. is competing for the same pool of used books, the earlier the bookstore knows about a professor’s requirements, the earlier they can order books and the cheaper they’ll be. If a professor lets the bookstore know late, there may not be any used books available and whatever’s left will be more expensive.

“Our ultimate goal is to get as many used books as possible,” said Pioneer Bookshop general manager Cassie Wherry. “We know students want used books. We can definitely see that in their buying behavior. They’ll come in and if there’s a used book, they’ll buy it, and if not, they’ll just pass.”

A tutorial on using the new software held on Tuesday, Oct. 3 was attended only by this reporter and the presenters. Only three people, none of who were faculty, attended the previous day’s session.

However, the bookshop has already received a few textbook adoptions through the new software, which is fairly intuitive. A professor logs in and sees a personalized interface with every class they’re teaching that semester. Clicking on a class shows them books that class had adopted in past semesters and gives them the option to readopt. They can also add new books by searching a database in which every book has a score from 0 to 100, where 100 is the most affordable.

“It looks at the initial price, how many copies are available online, how often it was used in the past and it gives a percentage to each of those numbers to come up with the affordability score,” said Brian Mitchell, textbook specialist at the Pioneer Bookshop. “It’s kind of magic math. I’m not sure if I trust that number completely.”

Still, it allows professors to easily compare books, and searching for one book also returns similar but less expensive books or less expensive editions of the same book.

Previously, professors had to fill out a form including the name of the class and section and the full details of every book rather than having a database fill out that information automatically, so the new system will be more convenient for professors and hopefully lead to the bookstore being able to order books earlier and offer them to students more cheaply.

“Our goal for the textbooks is to provide what’s needed for their learning at the lowest possible cost to the student,” Wherry said.

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