Give students more personal autonomy over their textbook costs

Eva Strelitz-Block

The rising cost of course materials has long been a topic of discussion among higher-ed administrators. This year, UT piloted a new program to counter these expenses incurred on students. 

The Longhorn Textbook Access program provides students with direct access to online versions of required textbooks via their Canvas page for an allegedly lower cost than students might find elsewhere, such as the University Co-op or other various second-hand book markets. Students’ textbook fees are then grouped with other enrollment fees and billed through students’ “What I Owe Page.”

However, the program is an “opt-out” rather than an “opt-in” system. 

If a student is enrolled in a course that is a part of the LTA program, they are automatically enrolled. Unless they manually opt out, they will be charged for the course’s required textbook(s) on the 12th class day, when the add/drop period ends, which is often before students decide whether they’ll need a textbook or not. 

To maintain the benefits of LTA without inadvertently financially burdening students, LTA should move to an “opt-in” rather than “opt-out” model. 

Dave Platt, vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs, made clear that the “opt-out” model was very purposeful.

“Default opt-in with easy opt-out is an integral part of this model and provides everyone a good reason to participate,” Platt said in an email. “With students opted in by default, faculty members can plan their courses knowing that all students have their course materials from the first day of class. But we also make it very easy for students to get their materials elsewhere if they wish, opting out with a click on a link emailed by the Co-op or in Canvas.

This past semester, many students, myself included, who were unaware of this program’s design, were unknowingly “opted in” to LTA and found that they had paid for textbooks they did not want, did not use or had actually found cheaper elsewhere.

The experience of Kathryn Christian, environmental science sophomore, echoed this dynamic. 

“Sometimes I find my textbooks online for free, so I don’t have to buy them,” Christian said. 

While the system did send students email notifications of the “opt-out” deadline, students are notorious for overlooking information conveyed via their overfull inboxes and this crucial information was routinely missed. 

Additionally, although some courses specify textbooks as “required,” students understand that this is not always the case. In my Organic Chemistry class, the syllabus listed a required textbook. However, after the first few weeks of class, it became clear to me and other students that this textbook was not necessary to complete assignments or even succeed in class in general. All necessary readings and other critical content can be found on the professor’s website or elsewhere online. 

If students had the opportunity to determine for themselves whether it was worth the cost to purchase particular textbooks, in some instances, many are likely to decide that it is actually a poor use of their limited funds. 

For students who don’t yet know how to navigate the textbook market to their advantage, or who don’t want or need the hassle, LTA is a great option. Unfortunately, LTA’s “opt-out” system undermines students’ ability to decide this for themselves. 

But the fix is simple: allow students to “opt-in” rather than “opt-out” of the program. 

Strelitz-Block is a Plan II and Anthropology sophomore from Austin, Texas.