No such thing as a free book

The College recently announced a significant change in how it handles book expenses for financial aid students. The purchase of books and course packets is now going to be paid for directly by financial aid grants, instead of funded indirectly through allowances built into students’ aid packages. While this change does eliminate the inefficiency of the 1914 Library and the potential inequality of compelling financial aid students to employ used textbooks, it will ultimately end up costing many students valuable financial aid money that used to be put towards tuition and other expenses.

There has been a lot of positive press surrounding this change. Bill Lenhart, provost and treasurer of the College, wrote in an e-mail to the student body that the new system has numerous educational benefits. Students will no longer be pressured to choose courses based on the cost of books and will be able to keep their books for further professional and graduate study. In a New York Times online blog (“The Choice,” Oct. 26, 2009), Rebecca Ruiz praised the College for this revolutionary policy that allows students to “swipe their identification cards and get their books free.”

Now, I’m not an economics major, but just because we’re now able to swipe a plastic card to purchase books instead of paying cash “out of pocket” doesn’t mean that books used to cost us and that now they’re free. Textbook expenses used to be covered by a $400 per semester grant that was factored into every student’s financial aid package. Since this aid was supplemented by the use of the 1914 Library and vouchers for purchases at Water Street Books, many students in fact found themselves spending much less than $400 per semester on books. For these students, the excess book money simply became extra financial assistance. Now instead of getting $400 extra per semester in financial aid, the College is only giving us enough to cover the cost of our books. For some students this may be an even tradeoff, but for many it is not.

As a student who faces the responsibility of covering both the student and parental tuition contributions myself, this is concerning. I used to utilize the 1914 Library and other used book sources to minimize the cost of books and therefore put most of the old book allowance towards paying for tuition. I was able to keep my book and course packet expenditures under $50 per term. Now I am taking a $400 cut from my financial aid, a net loss of $350 per semester. From my perspective, this isn’t simply an alternative way to pay for books. It is a way for the College to chip away at financial aid while creating the illusion that they are improving the quality of education and giving everyone “free” new textbooks.

Furthermore, the new book policy represents another way for the Office of Financial Aid to directly control student finances. Financial Aid already limits how much a student can make through work study and keeps track of all student earnings and assets. If you make more money, your student contribution goes up. And now it knows how much a student spends on books, making it exceedingly difficult for students trying to pay for college for costs beyond textbooks.

Now, it is as good as if all financial aid students are going to have an extra $400 per semester added directly to their term bills and are being denied the opportunity to save that money by purchasing used books. The College is asserting that it knows what’s best for students and acting on the misguided assumption that they are protecting us from financial worry. In Ruiz’s blog post, she quoted Jim Kolesar, director of Public Affairs, as saying, “The idea of parting with hundreds of dollars fueled price consciousness and frugality among Williams undergraduates, with the cost of books influencing the course choices of some financial aid students.” These kinds of statements have a patronizing tone. Choice and responsibility are being portrayed as harmful to students who shouldn’t be worrying their little academic minds about such grown-up matters. Is it true that students can’t handle a major expense on their own without crippling their education?

I won’t deny that the idea of having new, unmarked books that you own instead of borrow is, at minimum, appealing. But unless a student previously paid more than $400 a semester for books, this privilege is going to cost them. Whereas before students could choose whether to spend more money on new books or to instead stand in line at the 1914 Library, now the choice is made for us. The College is telling us that we should have new books and that the cost is going to come out of our financial aid. Personally, I feel that this policy is a lot less “free” than it used to be.

Colleen Fitzpatrick ’12 is from South Berwick, Maine. She lives in Tyler.

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