The CITE, a blog published by the National Association of College Stores, takes a look at the intersection of education and technology, highlighting issues that range from course materials to learning delivery to the student experience. Comments, discussion, feedback, and ideas are welcome.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A view from college stores...

The California Association of College Stores (CACS) newsletter always has some interesting pieces in it. In this month’s newsletter there are a couple of interesting pieces.

Tony Sanjume, the incoming president of CACS talks about “living in interesting times” and the truth behind this proverb, and other misperceptions we may have about things. He makes a great plea on behalf of the college stores – emphasizing one point that differentiates college stores from many of their competitors: that the college store is part of the academic mission of the institution and works hard to obtain lower prices for students. He writes:

I doubt that there is another business that struggles with this issue more than the College Bookstore. We are perceived by some to be price gougers, profiteers, and opportunists of the worst sort; you would think we were selling water to earthquake victims at $10 a half liter. When in reality, most of the people in the store side of the business spend most of their time trying to provide lowest cost alternatives.

So what is the truth?

The truth is that textbook people are out hustling for next semester adoptions early, as soon as the dust settles from the start of the current semester. Why? Well, to find used books, to build a buyback list to pay out top dollar to our students at the end of the semester.

The truth is that general merchandise people are always looking for bargains in the supply area, they are looking for the $9.99 t-shirt, the bargain general reading books because they know that students are on very limited budgets.

The truth is I have yet to meet a college bookstore employee who didn’t have the best interests of the student in mind.

The truth is that textbooks are expensive.

The truth is that college is expensive.

The truth is that publishing is a business and the major academic publishers are public companies that are responsible for providing a bottom line on a corporate statement.

The truth is that faculty demand the most up to date information provided in an attractive package that comes with test banks and additional multimedia course management systems.

If I can be so bold as to paraphrase (and Tony correct me if I am off too far), despite best efforts to reduce costs, students still believe the store is out there to rip them off.

One “truth” I think Tony forgot to add is that most college stores are non-profit organizations. What profit they do generate typically goes back to the institution to support financial aid, student activities, or capital budgets – so that students can afford the rising tuition to attend academic institutions, or that they have the activities on their campus that interest them and make it a great living environment.

Are textbooks crazy expensive – I do not think anyone would argue against that. But the next time you are buying your textbook from someplace else to save money, ask yourself what that place is giving back to your institution to help with financial aid or campus life. There are several other arguments that could be made here – but I will attempt to avoid standing on that soap box too long.

Another interesting point that Tony made in his article referred to the initiative at Daytona State College designed to move course materials completely to digital. In my opinion this move is premature compared to the state of technology, preferences of students, and for other reasons – but hey, a school has to market itself, right? Tony raised a great set of questions that reflect some of the value the college store brings to the table and some of the questions that academic institutions must think about in considering options like these. For example:

1. Who will monitor the aggregation of course materials from faculty to ensure timely submission?
2. Who will ensure that digital delivery of course materials to students occurs in a smooth fashion?
3. Who will create and maintain the server that will interface between the publisher and the college?
4. Who will build the program that will know that a student’s fees have been paid so that it will notify the student and enable the download of their appropriate course materials?
5. Who has heard of FERPA?
6. Who will match the authorized course materials to the appropriate class?
7. Who will decipher what the faculty really meant to order?
8. Who will tell the faculty that they are only able to use course materials from these approved sources?
9. Who will tell that faculty member that the guy in Berkeley who hand prints his book in his garage on hemp paper is not an approved vendor?
10. Who will tell students that they can only have their course materials for 180 or 360 days because of DRM requirements? And then they need to buy them again if they’d like to use them for future reference.
11. Who will ensure that every student has a digital book reader, i.e. computer?
12. Who will tell foreign publishers that they need to create digital course materials?
13. What will you do when the digital cost of course materials begins to approach the cost of printed course materials after print product no longer subsidizes the artificially low cost of digital materials?
14. What happens when new editions keep coming every 2-3 years even when used books are eliminated?
15. Who has a higher average salary, an IT professional or a bookstore professional?

Suzanne Donnelly’s piece on the “buffet model” in the college store in this month’s newsletter is also good. She talks about change – here and coming – and how the role of textbook managers is undergoing a fundamental transformation on college campuses. I like the upbeat and opportunity-oriented perspective her piece provides, and so recommend that article to college store readers of this blog as well.

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