The hidden cost to study introductory Spanish at my liberal arts college was $154.94. After paying for tuition, fees, and other living costs, accessing the homework website and textbook for just this one class cost an additional $154.94. Luckily, Swarthmore College recently introduced a new textbook affordability program, so this sum did not have to come out of my pocket. Yet for students at many other institutions that lack these programs, the cost of required course materials — necessary to be students in class — is prohibitively high.
When students are balancing school, work, and family responsibilities, preparing for the unknown additional cost of courses is stressful. Though students can ask peers who’ve taken the same classes or professors about these costs, these conversations are awkward and uncomfortable for students who are remote, first-generation, and/or low income. To succeed in and graduate from college, students need clear, consistent information about costs beyond tuition and a seat at the policy-making table to create solutions that make college more affordable.
Every year, institutions determine a “cost of attendance,” which estimates the all-in average cost of being a student at a particular school. There is no federal requirement nor standardized process to determine what indirect expenses students will encounter. A June 2020 study released by UAspire called “Beyond the College Bill” focused on 820 colleges in California, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Texas; the authors said they couldn’t locate any indirect expense information on 39% of the schools’ websites. When they were included, 30 different terms were used to describe the category of “books and supplies.” Focus groups that UAspire spoke to concluded that “required course materials” was the most straightforward way to label “textbooks, printed materials, software, access codes, clickers, and additional course requirements in syllabi.” By including required course materials on college websites and financial aid packages, students can understand and prepare for this substantial additional cost.
The federal government should mandate that colleges calculate and communicate a more comprehensive cost of attendance in order to receive government funding. Congress members can introduce or advocate for bills that address indirect expenses nationwide or suggest pilot solutions with college students in their region, such as a funded or subsidized program to provide course materials. Beyond greater transparency, colleges can decrease the burden of indirect costs. With realistic calculations, colleges can charge a flat, annual fee that covers every student’s required course materials. A second option is for colleges to transition to open-access materials. Formally called “open educational resources,” this model allows textbooks to be freely available online and usually offers low-cost print alternatives, a longer borrowing time for books, and additional flexibility for professors to adapt existing materials to their class. Though this may not include physical materials like attendance clickers or lab supplies, it is a more affordable and student-focused approach. Both solutions prevent inequity between what students decide to study and their ability to access expensive learning materials or resources.
A large number of college students nationwide cannot afford to attend college at all. A 2019 Pew Research Center study found that about 20% of all college students are low income, and the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing recession have put additional financial strain on many families. We must raise awareness so that decision makers recognize what the college experience is like today. This is vital not only for future students and for the workforce that we will enter, but also for current students who deserve to be heard and empowered. This is the only way that solutions can reflect our needs and create systemic change.
There is no excuse for the lack of upfront clarity that colleges and the federal government offer students about how much college truly costs. These flaws in our higher education system are exactly what our leaders in education and politics, from college administrators to elected and appointed officials, have the power — and responsibility — to fix. President-elect Joe Biden’s platform includes a plan to address the fact that “for too many, earning a degree or other credential after high school is unaffordable today.” His ideas include investing in community colleges and the Pell grant program, decreasing student loan debt, and providing alternative post-high-school pathways. Those are promising initial steps. But there’s so much more to be done, and the Biden administration’s first step should be to seek out students to inform their policies.
Beyond course materials, expenses related to accessing health care, transportation, housing, and food are a huge burden for college students that must be addressed. If we want more students to finish a college degree and to do so without drowning in debt, policymakers must recognize and fund indirect college costs, including required course materials. We deserve the chance to learn.
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