Free textbooks at a price

For the first time since 1920, the 1914 Library did not open its doors at the beginning of the semester to the traditional line of financial aid students waiting to borrow textbooks. With the implementation of the College’s new book-buying policy, students instead swarmed Water Street Books, ID cards in hand, to collect new books they could keep.

The benefits were clear: the ease of purchasing, the lack of lines and the beauty of not having to worry about returning the books at the end of the semester all represent improvements from the former system. The navigation of vouchers, 1914 book availability and personal funds required a juggling act that no longer bur- dens students. However, the confusion the policy has generated since the College announced it in October and the drawbacks the policy seems to imply for the future rain on the parade of what the College hails to be a trailblazing achievement in solving the perennial problem of book expenses for college students.

The contradiction between what the book-buying policy purported to do and what it actually did this semester in terms of financial aid students’ bills is highly problematic. Although financial aid students will not be put through the process of being first credited and then reimbursed with money for books, that students this year had to come up with an unanticipated $400 not only added a financial burden but also raised questions of whether the College was saying one thing, but doing another.

In addition, the $400 charge on financial aid students’ bills created yet another challenge, as it compelled students to feel as though they had to spend over $400 at Water Street to “get their money’s worth.” While the setup proved extremely satisfying
for students who spent $600, students who spent $200 were left feeling that they were subsidizing the cost of other people’s books.

Indeed, it seems that the new policy could easily lead students to buy even books that they normally might not – a problem that could be alleviated were students given additional purchasing options. It is no secret that Water Street’s book prices are more expensive than most; a quick online price comparison quickly reveals that buying a book on Amazon.com is far more cost-effective, even with shipping rates.

The monopoly that the book-buying policy gives to Water Street Books not only inflates prices for non-financial aid students but also forces the College to spend more money than it otherwise might and poses a problem for students whose professors don’t want to order their books through Water Street.

Although the 1914 Library certainly had its drawbacks, it was not without its benefits – benefits that the new system does not make up for. Despite the advantages of owning one’s books, not all students want to keep every book from every class they take in the process of expanding their horizons at our liberal arts school. This surplus of books that the College has provided for financial aid students will likely end up either for sale or in a forgotten storage pile.

Some of these challenges are easily addressed. First, the College should reimburse students for books from places other than Water Street. It should be a student’s prerogative to find a cheaper option. While such a system would create additional paperwork, the money saved could quite believably offset that cost and effort. Fortunately, the Office of Financial Aid has a system for reimbursing international students for plane tickets, so the model already exists.

Second, students should be conscientious with the books provided by the College. Books that don’t need to be kept or aren’t wanted can always be passed on to other students. The revival of some sort of book trade or book fair for all students on campus could facilitate this process. Furthermore, a textbook exchange mechanism would cohere with the College’s stated commitment to sustainability.

Finally, the College should learn from this experience. Had it simply instituted the policy at a different time, either prior to financial aid statements for the semester being sent to students or next fall, both the financial sting and the administrative back-and-forth of the $400 could have been avoided. Moreover, explaining the policy clearly to students at the outset would have forestalled many queries from confused students. This underscores the need for better advising on financial aid packages, whether through accessible documentation or drop-in office hours, a need that numerous students articulate every year.

At the onset of the financial crisis, the Record applauded the College’s transparency and communication in important decisions about budgetary trade-offs. In contrast, this admittedly positive decision seemed hasty and was perplexing. This week’s announcement about the move to need-aware admission for international students proves that the campus can expect more weighty decisions in the months to come. We hope that in the future, especially looking toward the upcoming Neighborhood Review Committee recommendation, committees will take the time and the care to implement well-thought out and well-explained policies in order to avoid the pitfalls we have seen with this one.