The college instructional materials community is in the final stages of trying to fight off a plan by the Department of Education to change rules that have made it easier, and cheaper, for students to buy course materials.

While colleges and universities have had the ability to include textbook and other instructional materials costs as part of tuition since 1886, that option has gained much greater traction in the last decade. The trend has been spurred by students pivoting in large numbers to using digital materials, as well as an Obama-era initiative that allows students to buy course materials using Title IV money—with the caveat that the materials are being offered at a discount to listed prices. That initiative has evolved into what have become known as Inclusive Access or Equitable Access (IA/EA) programs, in which students pay for their course materials as part of tuition or another fee and have all their materials available for the first day of class.

The programs have been “widely successful” in lowering the costs of materials for students and ensuring that they have all materials by the first day of class, said Kelly L. Denson, SVP of education policy and programs for the Association of American Publishers. The IA/EA programs, however, are now facing a major overhaul: the Biden Administration has included them in its war on “junk fees,” which is aimed at eliminating hidden costs on such transactions as service charges on event tickets and resort fees at hotels.

The proposed changes to the DOE’s Cash Management rule would, in essence, move the IA/EA programs from an opt-out option for students to opt-in. Requiring students to opt-in would undermine the incentive publishers and booksellers have for participating in the program, since it would reduce the visibility both groups have about the amount of sales they can expect, thereby eliminating the economies of scale that make it possible for schools to negotiate lower prices with publishers. A return to what Barnes & Noble Education calls a la carte purchases, in which students buy materials one at a time, would almost certainly raise the cost of materials for college students, undoing several years of cost reductions.

Studies by different groups document the progress that has been made in reducing the cost of textbooks and other materials. According to the latest data available in the 2024 Student Monitor Report, average student spending on college textbooks and course materials was $332 during the 2023-2024 academic year, flat with the prior year but down 45% since the 2013-2014 school year. The report attributes much of the decline over the past decade to the increased popularity of digital materials, including materials bought through IA/EA bundling programs.

Moreover, research has found that students who take advantage of IA/EA programs do better in school. A study conducted by Michael Moore of the University of New Hampshire determined that underrepresented students using IA/EA had significantly increased success rates, with students who identify as Black seeing improvements by as much as 13%. In his study on Equitable Access, Moore demonstrated that students who participated in the model had an average course completion rate 15.6% higher than those who opted out, with the number climbing as high as a 22% completion rate increase for some student groups.

Surveys done by both the National Association of College Stores (NACS) and Barnes & Noble Education also show that students approve of the IA/EA programs and that adoption of the programs has increased steadily, particularly in recent years. B&NE’s 2024 “Student Pulse” survey found that 90% of students were interested in buying bundled packages that contain both digital and print products, and that 76% said that they would have a more favorable perception of their schools if they offered EA course materials through bundling programs.

NACS’s most recent “Student Watch” report found that the IA/EA model has been growing in popularity, with 44% of students in the 2022-2023 school year saying they acquired course materials that way, up from 39% in the 2021-2022 school year. Though the full “Student Watch” report for the 2023-2024 school year won’t be out for several weeks, NACS’s Richard Hershman told PW that one early finding indicates that 41% of students who opt out of using IA/EA admitted to using pirated textbooks—more than double the national average. Hershman pointed to that trend as just one example of the unintended consequences the rule change will cause in the college instructional material market. AAP’s Denson agreed, saying the rule change “could cause chaos” in higher education if students are forced to opt-in to IA/EA programs rather than opt-out.

NACS and the AAP have been working to bring attention to why including IA/EA in the war on junk fees will have the opposite impact of its intention by raising student costs for course materials rather than lowering them. Both associations have been frustrated by the fact that, in pushing the rule change forward, DOE officials have largely ignored input from students, professors, and college executives. A second concern is that the DOE’s proposal has lost support from the outside parties and experts who were brought on by the DOE to take part in the process. Of the 15 negotiators engaged by the DOE, only four voted in favor of the current proposal.

Among the public efforts to create opposition to the proposed changes, NACS and seven other higher education associations sent a letter to the DOE, explaining how the proposed changes of IA/EA programs would raise prices on course materials while also lowering student outcomes. NACS and the American Council on Education recently hosted a webinar on the potential consequences of changes to the current DOE rule, urging college presidents, provosts, and other higher education stakeholders to contact the DOE to ask it to develop “a workable final rule that will not lead to higher costs or harm student success.”

Among the changes NACS would like to see to the current proposal are preserving the opt-out option for including books and supplies as part of tuition and fees and adding more disclosures and guardrails for affordable access programs. Denson said the AAP supports the DOE goal of improving the transparency involved in the purchase of college materials, but doesn’t believe the last version of the rule she has seen accomplishes that objective.

Hershman is concerned that the DOE is rushing to get the regulation changed so that it can go into effect by July 1, 2025. To meet that goal, the new final rule needs to be printed in the Federal Register, the federal government's official journal, by November 1.

The actual wording of the new proposal is murky, since the final revision the DOE has made has not been made public. It is now with the Office of Management and Budget, which is expected to send its comments back to the DOE this summer, when a public comment period, which could be as short as 35 days, would begin. If no substantial changes are made following that comment period, a final new regulation would be published. From what he knows of the proposal so far, Hershman said that the government claim that the new regulations will boost consumer protection for students “doesn’t ring true.”