With 'Access Codes,' Textbook Pricing Gets More Complicated Than Ever

Carl D. Walsh for The Chronicle

A blog post by Luke Thomas, a student at the U. of Maine at Orono, set off a wave of complaints about the bundling of access codes for online materials, which makes it harder for students to save money by buying used textbooks.
September 03, 2012

The story of one University of Maine student's quest for a reasonably priced textbook reveals just how complicated course materials have become as the textbook industry makes its awkward transition from print to digital.

The student is Luke Thomas, a senior majoring in business on the Orono campus, who last semester took a 250-person introductory English course called "The Nature of Story." The required textbook was compiled by the professor, John R. Wilson, and published by Cengage. Mr. Wilson also asked students to purchase access to online supplementary materials that came bundled with new copies of the textbook. Total price tag for the book and an access code to get to the online system: $150.

Mr. Thomas was taking the course with his then-fiancée (now wife), so he hoped to buy just one textbook they could share. The trick, though, was that each student in the course needed his or her own access code to get to the online discussion board and homework-submission system. And Mr. Thomas was told by the professor and by officials at the campus bookstore that the textbook and code came only as a package deal, meaning the couple would have to pay $300 to get the two access codes and an extra book they didn't need.

Mr. Thomas says he complained to the professor, who brushed off his questions. He then took his case to the campus bookstore, but when its director, Richard Young, called the publisher, he was told that selling just the online-access code "was not an option." The professor did not return repeated calls to comment for this article.

"The professor had put a wall between course content, and purchasing his textbook was the only route," Mr. Thomas wrote in a blog post complaining about the situation. Soon after he posted his story, it was picked up by a popular technology Web site, leading other students to post similar frustrations with textbook access codes.

No Simple Approach

In the good-old days when print was the only option, students had plenty of free or cheap ways to get required textbooks. Borrow one from a friend. Check out a copy from the library. Buy a used copy for a fraction of the price. Or rent a copy through one of several companies providing that service.

But the latest textbook enhancements, which require individual access codes to get to bonus materials online, threaten to displace all of those alternatives. Most access codes are good only for a limited time, and once they are activated they can't be used by other students.

"This is the next generation of tactics to undermine the used-book market," said Nicole Allen, textbooks-campaign director for the Student Public Interest Research Groups, when asked about Mr. Thomas's situation.

But this is not a simple case of big-textbook-company-as-villain. When Mr. Thomas called Cengage, officials there were sympathetic to his situation and allowed him to buy a stand-alone access code for $20.

The company now says that it intended for access codes to supplementary materials for that textbook to be available to purchase separately. "It's our standard practice to separate them," said Nader Qaimari, senior vice president of marketing for Cengage, in an interview. "We simply made a mistake in our system and didn't unbundle it." He stressed that the code gives students access to a digital version of the textbook's complete contents as well as the homework system and other online features, so those who choose a digital-only option get quite a discount over buying a printed book.

Even Ms. Allen concedes that when done well, new online enhancements for textbooks can save professors time and "increase students' learning." Her main complaint about textbook access codes is that the prices aren't always as reasonable as the deal offered to Mr. Thomas. In some cases, publishers charge almost as much for the access code alone as they do for a new printed textbook.

"It's common sense that things that are digital should be less expensive and better for consumers," Ms. Allen said. "But with textbooks, the underlying problem with the market is the fact that publishers get to set the price of textbooks without any input from students because students need to buy whatever they're assigned. In other areas, if students don't like the price they can go buy something else."

But Mr. Qaimari, of Cengage, argues that students are still key in shaping prices, and that the publisher is working to develop a business model for new kinds of digital materials that works for all parties, including professors and students.

"Without their satisfaction in the resources and them seeing value in those resources, we're not going to survive," he said. Confusion seems to be a key ingredient when access codes are thrown into the textbook mix. A Google search for "textbook access codes" reveals plenty of concerned students wondering whether what they're buying from Amazon or other sellers contains all the material they need for class.

"From what I understand, if you bought it off Amazon, there will be no access code," wrote one student in an online forum. "You should be able to purchase the access code individually for the specific book from the publisher, but it will probably cancel any savings made (or increase the cost past what it would have been as a new book)."

Is that right? I asked Richard Hersh­man, vice president of government relations for the National Association of College Stores. His long answer basically boiled down to: sort of. "If you are buying a brand-new textbook from Amazon and that textbook comes with an access code or packaged with an access code, then you are fine," he said. But individuals also sell textbooks through Amazon Marketplace, and they self-report whether the code is included or not. "For used books, most of the codes are likely already used, so either they are no good or are missing from the book. In those cases, then, if you must have the access code to take the class, then you buy it separately from a retailer or publisher who is selling them."

Got it? Essentially, buying access to online textbook supplements is more like buying a software app than a book. Once you've paid to download software for your phone or computer, you know there's no easy way to resell it.

More Bundling

The majority of university courses still use printed textbooks without requiring online supplements. But the use of added online materials is growing fast, and certainly faster than all-digital options, in which a printed book is cast aside completely.

At the University of Kansas' bookstores, for instance, the number of courses requiring print textbooks that are bundled with supplemental access codes is up to about 25 to 30 a semester, compared with 10 to 15 two years ago, says Estella McCollum, director of KU Bookstores. And those courses are typically introductory ones with large enrollments, so thousands of students are affected.

In many cases, the codes do affect a student's ability to buy a used copy. But she said that the online access, which typically costs from $50 to $70 when sold separately, is usually worth the money. "The same students who are complaining about the price, they're going to pay $50 for a Wii game," said Ms. McCollum. "Some of the online-learning environments are dynamic enough that as a parent I'd be willing to pay that."

The codes can push bookstores into a new and unwanted role: tech support. When a new code bundled with a book fails, some students take their complaints to the campus store. Typically, the codes are packaged on a card that requires purchasers to scratch off a silver coating to reveal the number, much like gift cards sold by retailers. Ms. McCollum says that one textbook caused headaches this summer because scratching off the coating with a coin made the underlying numbers illegible. "It was just a very poorly done access card," she said.

The digital textbook market essentially needs a sign that says "pardon our dust." It's a work in progress, with many unanswered questions.

Some students are already sold on the possibility of enhancing their textbooks with online exercises.

One of them is Caroline Liu, a junior bioengineering major at the University of California at San Diego. She recently took an economics course that required paying about $110 for a printed book and access code to a digital system. "In retrospect, the program was really useful," she told me. "It was like, quiz yourself on the material, and it re­inforced the concepts."

She could have purchased just the access code without the book, for about $90, but she wanted to have the printed copy as well, so she bought the bundle. Because the code worked for a whole year, she was able to use it for a three-course sequence. "I actually think it was not unreasonable."

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