New financial aid textbook system triggers confusion among students

Three months after the College announced its new textbook purchasing policy for financial aid students, the campus is preparing for its full implementation ahead of the spring semester. The 1914 Library is closed as of this week, and all of its books have been donated to charitable organizations. The new system, which is the only one of its kind among U.S. colleges, allows financial aid students to swipe their College ID cards at Water Street Books and receive reimbursement for the exact cost of their books. However, questions about the details of the new system linger among students.

In December, families received the term bill for the spring semester, and financial aid families found an extra $400 added to their expected contribution. Before, the College assumed that each student would spend $400 on his or her textbooks, and so that was included as a financial aid grant each semester. The new system takes that grant away, with the stipulation that the College will reimburse a student for whatever the cost of his or her books amounts to. Now, a financial aid student who spends more than $400 on books will benefit in terms of money spent, but a student who spends less than $400 will technically be paying more.

Tyisha Turner ’12 explained how this term bill change has not generated a good press for the new policy. “I think by far the biggest flaw for financial
aid students is we all have an extra $400 added to our term bills now, and that wasn’t explained to anyone,” Turner said. “Personally, when I talked to financial aid about it, the reason behind the extra $400 doesn’t make sense to me.”

Paul Boyer, director of Financial Aid and member of the 1914 Library Committee, acknowledged the confusion of the mid-year term bill. “The only weakness [of the new policy] I can say is the timing of the system,” Boyer said. “It’s kind of unfortunate that the new system happened mid-year because it doesn’t give students time to prepare. At the midpoint [of the year], we didn’t have the luxury of educating students as much.”

On Jan. 12, Boyer ran information sessions about the policy, with a separate session for each class year. He said that the sessions drew about 40 first-years and 40 upperclassmen in total, noting that fewer upperclassmen attended because some may have been off-campus for Winter Study. Boyer explained that the office has counseled students on the ways they can make up the gap between the $400 they are expected to pay and the cost of their books, should that cost fall below $400. He cited work-study and summer earnings contributions as the main solutions his office has come up with.
Boyer also noted that some students trickled into the Financial Aid office before winter break to ask questions about the policy, and that roughly 20 to 30 students have made appointments to inquire about the change since the beginning of Winter Study.

For some students, however, the financial aid office’s education efforts may have still fallen short. “I didn’t go to [the information session] because I had already made a meeting with the financial aid office, and I just didn’t feel like going to listen anymore,” Turner said. “I wasn’t being treated like a person.
I was just being given an official statement. When I said I was confused, no one stopped and said ‘What are you confused about?’ and they just kept repeating it in the same way.”

According to Boyer, the new system distributes financial aid grants more equitably. Boyer explained that with the old plan, if a student borrowed many books from the 1914 Library, then that student had excess money on his or her term bill. “The new system tends to correct that,” Boyer said. “Every financial aid student is expected to make the same contribution toward term bill expenses.”

The College had budgeted $400 for each financial aid student’s books; therefore, the College is not expecting to increase expenditures with the new policy because the students who spend above and below $400 will average out. Under the old system, financial aid students could use vouchers to get free books from the 1914 Library – books which they had to return at the end of the term – and paid for the rest of their books out of pocket.

According to Nancy Roseman, professor of biology and chair of the 1914 Library Committee, the academic ideal of students keeping their textbooks and choosing classes regardless of the cost of books required was the driving force behind the change. “We learned about students selecting courses based on their cost. That really got our attention,” Roseman said.

Roseman elaborated on the importance of students owning their own books. “From an educational standpoint, absolutely, students not being able to annotate their books puts them at a disadvantage,” she said. “[Morevoer], if [for example] a student can’t keep their Bio 101 book, they don’t have a reference for later biology courses.”

One of the criticisms of the new system that has emerged, however, is that not every student wants to keep his or her books. Turner expressed her hesitations about this concept of the academic ideal. “I like the 1914 Library a lot and I don’t like the concept of buying books for the Div. III class I’m taking, which I’m not interested in at all. I think it seems like a waste for the College, too.”

On the other hand, Gershwin Penn ’11 echoed the sentiments of the Committee. “Not only are some of these books relevant to future classes that we take, but it is really nice to be able to build a collection of books that we have from our undergraduate experience to read,” Penn said. “There are some books that move me or are interesting to me, so it’s nice to be able to read them again after the semester is over.”

Some students have also expressed concerns about Water Street Books, which is owned by the Follett Books Corp., being the business that the College
has chosen to contract with exclusively for this policy. Boyer cited practical reasons to explain why the College has chosen Water Street Books as its partner, saying that the Committee wanted a “clear, clean, simple transaction with one vendor,” and that the College does not have a mechanism to interface with other sellers like Amazon.com. A change is not ultimately impossible, however, as the College’s contract with Water Street Books is an annually-renewed one-year contract.

“I really don’t see any problem with having Water Street Books as the venue,” Penn said. “Their used book prices are in the same range as other used book retailers. And when you consider shipping, they are sometimes less expensive. I’ve shopped at Water Street Books at times other than the start of the semester, and everyone there seems friendly and helpful, so I have no problem with them getting business.”

Roseman elaborated on the technological and logistical side of the switch. The College has designed an interface program to allow a single swipe to charge book purchases to student accounts.

Students who are not on financial aid can also choose to charge their books in this way, although of course the College will not reimburse them for the cost. Course packets are included in the system, so financial aid students will receive reimbursement for those as well. Roseman added that employees at Water Street Books have assured the Committee that the swipe system will make the lines move faster, an important consideration given that 1914 often
had challenges with waits. “We don’t want the 1914 line to become the Water Street Books line,” Roseman said. She also mentioned that the bookstore will be putting up additional cash-registers for the book-buying period, a window of time that will also last longer than in previous years and should defray lines by spreading out book purchases. Boyer said that Water Street Books has also over-ordered books for the spring to prevent a shortage.

The new software and accounting system will check the books students have bought against the courses the student is enrolled in.

According to Roseman, the electronic audit of the books students have bought will not occur until after the drop/add period, so students are allowed to buy books for classes they might be trying to get into. After drop/add closes, however, financial aid students who have bought books for classes they are not enrolled in will be referred to the dean’s office. “If you buy other books, we are going to consider that a violation of community standards,” Roseman said.

The issue of financial aid students purchasing new textbooks from Water Street Books and then selling those books on e-commerce websites or to friends for full price, while then buying their own books in used condition independently of the College policy from a vendor like Amazon.com, has also cropped up.

In response, Boyer said, “We hope that’s not going to happen. We’re looking at a community standard here.”

Roseman expressed similar feelings. “There’s nothing we can do about that [scenario],” she said. “In the end, all we want is to get books in the hands of students so they are not placed at an educational disadvantage.”

The 1914 Library space does not yet have a new function, although Roseman noted that the Stetson-Sawyer project might require that space be used for book storage or other transitional needs. The 1914 book collection has partly been sold to Follett Books and partly been donated to two organizations, Better World Books and Hands Across the Water. Felicia Pharr, the director of the 1914 Library, is now working in the financial aid office, although her new title remains undetermined.

“I often said that next to Santa Claus, I had the best job in the world,” Pharr said. “There was a definite spirit of community at the 1914 Library, but that spirit came from the hearts of the students and it continues even though the 1914 Library is gone. There are so many volunteering opportunities on campus and now finding a home for unwanted books is another opportunity.”

“It may be that the new system creates a used books market,” Boyer said, adding that perhaps Water Street Books, Spring Street Books or College Council
might still find ways to incorporate these used books into campus book-buying culture.

Both Boyer and Roseman said that the system will continue to undergo review after its first run this spring semester. “We’re monitoring it very closely,” Boyer said. “If there are any bugs as time goes on, certainly there can be revisions.”

“The publishing business is changing so much,” Roseman added. “Five years from now, who knows what this will look like?”