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First generation students find success with digital textbooks


About one-third of the students entering higher education each year are first-generation college students, according to the U.S. Department of Education. A college acceptance marks a significant breakthrough for these students, whose parents’ highest level of education is a high-school diploma. For the students, higher education seems to promise access to better careers and better lives.

Roughly 40 percent of first-generation college students drop out of college within three years and do not return.

The path, however, is not easy. The most recent Education Department statistics indicate that roughly 40 percent of first-generation college students drop out of college within three years and do not return. Their academic success is threatened by many unique and significant barriers. The majority belong to minority groups or come from lower-income families. Due to disparities in household income, many have to balance studies with work. The median family income for first-generation students at two- and four-year institutions, for example, is $37,565, less than half that of peers whose parents had attended college, according to statistics compiled by the Postsecondary National Policy Institute. Many have to pull together scholarships, loans, and grants to pay tuition, realizing that some needs remain unmet, extra costs arise, and they have loans to repay.

In addition to economic struggles, some face racial, social, or cultural isolation. Many are not prepared for the academic rigor of college courses. There often are language barriers and a need for academic remediation. As a result, many lack self-confidence. They have a particularly difficult time navigating the higher-education experience and understanding its processes. Unlike students whose parents graduated from college and can give their children first-hand advice, direction, and encouragement, first-generation students don’t have that frame of reference from their parents. So the students are left to figure it out on their own.

Given all this, many institutions are undertaking efforts to reduce the obstacles. Campuses are creating special scholarship programs, expanding academic services, improving student support, and setting up first-generation student organizations. Others are taking steps in a critically important, but less obvious, way that benefits not only first-generation students, but all students. These colleges are making it easier and cheaper for students to obtain required textbooks and course materials, by partnering with VitalSource, a global leader in e-learning content.

VitalSource works with more than 1,000 publishers to deliver digital course materials on or before the first day of class. The company has users in more than 7,000 colleges and universities worldwide, and it saved students more than $100 million in materials costs in academic year 2016-2017.VitalSource executives and college administrators say the model, known as Inclusive Access, is helping more students gain access to required materials, leading to improved retention rates and academic performance.

By providing students with their required course materials at an affordable price on or before day one of class, students can focus on the course work.

“It doesn’t take much in terms of a negative experience to make first-generation students believe they aren’t cut out for college,” says Michael S. Hale, VitalSource’s vice president of education for North America. “By removing the burden of navigating a confusing and unnecessary marketplace and providing students with their required course materials at an affordable price on or before day one of class, students can focus on the course work.”

Texas State University administrators have seen how overwhelming the book-buying process can be for students. Roughly 50 percent of Texas State’s 5,800 freshmen are first-generation. Daniel A. Brown, dean of Texas State’s University College, says many of the students aren’t sure what materials to buy and are confused about whether they need them. Many come from homes that didn’t have books, or they attended public high schools where books were provided free. “The cost can be seemingly prohibitive, and they might not realize the importance,” Brown says.

Depending on the discipline, college course materials can range in cost from several dollars for a handbook to several hundred for a textbook. Nationally, students spend an average of $1,300 a year on hard-copy course materials, according to a study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. For students who are cash-strapped, that means many hours or weeks of part- or full-time work. Even students who can afford the materials sometimes don’t buy them.

In a national online survey of college students 85 percentsaid they had delayed or avoided purchasing required materials. The survey was conducted by Wakefield Research, a market research firm, for VitalSource in May 2017. Of the students who put off their textbook purchases, 91 percent said “cost” had influenced their decisions. Yet, the respondents seemed to realize the books were important. Fifty percent said their grades were negatively affected by their decision to delay or avoid purchasing books. In interviews, college officials stress that course materials are critical. “If you don’t read your textbooks, you can’t contribute and engage in a meaningful way,” says Wilson Ramos, manager and online faculty concierge of National University’s Center for Innovation in Learning. “You are not getting the full effect and benefit of why you are going to college.”


National is currently conducting a pilot study of VitalSource’s inclusive-access delivery system in select courses. The university traditionally has served mostly adult-aged, first-generation students, but a growing number are coming straight out of high school. Many students hold down full- or part-time jobs, and they don’t have a lot of extra time to put into comparing the costs of used-book sellers and online vendors. Administrators were looking for a way to lower the cost of course materials and streamline the purchase process.

Students, as part of course registration, can click on a link to sign up for the materials they need. VitalSource then loads the text into the college’s learning management system, so students can access it on the first day of classes, if not before. The cost, which is below competitive market prices, per U.S. Department of Education guidelines issues in 2015, is added to the students’ tuition bills. They are not required to purchase the books this way. As mandated by U.S. Department of Education guidelines, students can opt in or opt out. “By offering day-one access, we are removing that course materials barrier,” Ramos says. “Students don’t have to drop a class because they don’t have the textbook—they have the e-book.”

The system is getting positive reviews from professors, administrators, and students. Even students who opt out at first, are coming back to opt in. “They love it and wish it was in more of their classes,” says Ramos. The university plans to expand the e-delivery texts to more programs and more courses.

...materials in an electronic format can be delivered at a cost 50 to 70 percent lower than the price of a print version

Hale, of VitalSource, says that materials in an electronic format can be delivered at a cost 50 to 70 percent lower than the price of a print version. Students can expect to save an average of $60 per title. eTextbooks can be offered at lower cost because the publishers receive a steady flow of income, rather than make a one-time sale on a hard copy.

Not only are the eTexts more affordable, they’re more flexible and interactive, Hale says. VitalSource’s eTexts work on various electronic devices. Any students who don’t own laptops can go to computer labs or get access on their cell phones or tablets. The platform has online and offline capabilities, so students can work with materials even when they don’t have Wi-Fi access. Students can underline, highlight, write notes, and share comments. Professors can communicate with students within the text. For students with disabilities, there are a variety of features that work with text-to-speech and other accessibility tools. Students without special needs can use the text-to-speech feature to listen to their textbooks, when they cannot look at the screen, such as when driving. “Having their content with them wherever they are and when they need itis powerful,” Hale says.

In an effort to measure the academic impact of the platform, one of VitalSource’s partners, a medium-sized community college, compared the average grade point average in every fall semester for the past 10 years with the average in fall 2016, which was the first semester that students received all of their course materials electronically on or before the first day of class. The fall 2016 average was markedly higher than any of the preceding years and reversed a 3-year downward trend in GPA. Hale says the electronic delivery concept is simple, and it produces positive results. Students can feel confident they are getting the right materials at the lowest price—and that helps to level the academic playing field for first-generation students. “It is not the entire answer by a long shot,“ says Hale. “But if students have the correct course materials, they can be more successful.”

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