Heather Dean’s passion for accessible textbooks stems from her time as a student at Iowa State University, where one textbook can run as high as $347.
A 2006 graduate, she was in school during a recession and tuition increases in the 18-percent range. “I was on my own to pay for college,” Dean said. “I came to Iowa State when it was a public school that was supposed to be affordable with tuition and everything.
“I still left with a significant amount of student debt.”
Now, Dean is the course materials manager at the Iowa State University Bookstore and a three-time winner of the Excellence in Course Materials Management award from the Independent College Bookstore Association for her efforts to make textbooks affordable at ISU.
Dean was part of an effort to allow ISU students to charge textbooks to their regular university bill so that they can make payments throughout a semester.
She is driven, she said, because she does not want students graduating with as much debt as she had.
Her efforts come at a time when the average price of a new college textbook has risen from $58 in 2011-12 to $82 in 2014-15 before dropping slightly to $80 in 2015-16, the National Association of College Stores reports.
The costs of textbooks used by students interviewed on seven Iowa college campuses in a spring 2018 IowaWatch/College Media Journalism Project included $400 for a physics book used over multiple semesters, $240.25 for a management textbook, $190 for a biology textbook and access code to online learning tools, $167.50 for a linear algebra textbook and $160 for an injury evaluation textbook.
Erin Wagner, 22, of Raymore, Missouri, spent $60 on a comp science textbook. Wagner, a senior in the 2017-18 school year, said the value of her textbooks depended upon how technical a class was, and the teacher.
Dean has worked with teachers on several fronts to make educational resources more available to students. For example, bookstore employees urge teachers listing books as “required” to list, instead, as “recommended” when the books do not have required reading.
LISTEN TO THE PODCAST: REPORTERS K. RAMBO AND ALEX CONNOR TALK ABOUT INVESTIGATING TEXTBOOK COSTS AT IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY FOR THE IOWAWATCH/COLLEGE MEDIA JOURNALISM PROJECT.
Some faculty members balk at accepting the suggested change, she said.
“We try to champion these initiatives as soon as they become available to us,” Dean said. “We take them and run with them right here at Iowa State and set an example for the rest of the country to follow suit.”
Dean has been instrumental in bringing Inclusive Access resources to Iowa State. These are digital learning materials the bookstore can obtain for specific classes for negotiated bulk discount prices and automatically charge to a student’s university bill at a fraction of the cost of other textbooks.
Dean also is a supporter of Open Educational Resources, which are learning and research resources, usually digital, available via public domain or intellectual property licensing that allows students to use them. She said she is working with the library to ensure students are aware when their required readings can be accessed through the library and instructors creating a course are aware of all options for providing course materials.
Cody West, Iowa State Student Government president for the 2017-18 academic year, pushed for Open Education Resources while in office.
“This is a talk that we started among all the Big 12 institutions, specifically Iowa State and West Virginia University are working together but they’re pretty far ahead of us on this,” West said. “I’ve really bounced a lot of ideas off them as far as how we do this.”
West said the process is ongoing but that some teachers have not been immediately welcoming of Open Education Resources.
“They don’t really know what open resources are, and I think a lot of them see a threat as far as getting rid of academic journals or these things that are very prestigious that we’re all kind of… attached to,” West said.
“I think any way we can address costs of attendance is a good option,” West said.
Students like Austin Claussen, wrapping up his senior year at ISU this year, would welcome relief. “I believe $100 isn’t so bad for the super technical and helpful books,” Claussen, 22, of Davenport, Iowa, said. “But $100-plus for books like my MIS (management information systems) books, I think, aren’t at all when I can just Google terms and concepts.”
Contributing to this report were Caitlin Yamada, Jill O’Brien, Nayelie Valenzuela and Alex Connor. A version of this story was published in the Iowa State Daily.
The 2018 IowaWatch/College Media Journalism Project:
Student journalists working with IowaWatch conducted more than three dozen interviews in February and March for this report. Those journalists are:
Lauren Wade, Maria Curi, Helaina Thompson and Hannah Archambeau at the University of Iowa; K. Rambo, Alex Connor, Caitlin Yamada, Jill O’Brien and Naye Valenzuela at Iowa State University; Amber Krieg at Loras College; Sabrina Bryant, Keegan VanDevender, Jasmin Sonnenschein, Jace Neugebauer, Jimmy Ott and Helene Larsen at William Penn University; Kylee Deering, Olivia Wieseler, Emily Kenny, Kyle Wiebers, Tyler Brunner, Madeleine McCormick and Alyssa Donnelly at Buena Vista University; Sofia Legaspi and Anna Flanders at the University of Northern Iowa; and Blake Carlson and Zoe Seiler at Simpson College.
Special thanks to Andrea Frantz, Buena Vista; Matt Wagner, William Penn; Craig Schaefer, Loras College; and Emily Barske and Mark Witherspoon, Iowa State Daily.