New textbook policy cuts spring costs by $150K

The new financial aid textbook policy, implemented in February, has added savings to the all-around budget cuts at Williams College. Because the College no longer needs to maintain the 1914 Library or spend money on vouchers for books not available at the library, costs for textbooks and textbook vouchers for financial aid students have decreased by over $150,000 between the fall and the spring semesters.

Before this spring, the College built a $400 allowance for purchasing textbooks into each financial aid student’s package – an amount based on the average spent by students on books. This resulted in a $428,800 textbook budget. The 1914 Library was available for financial aid students to borrow textbooks, and if certain books were not available, students received vouchers to subsidize the remaining cost of books they needed. The cost for vouchers was not included in the $428,800 cost of book allowances.

Under the current system, the College spent $389,194 funding books and reading packets for financial aid students. Now, all students, whether or not on financial aid, can charge book costs to their term bills. The new book grant system covers the full cost for all required books for financial aid students.

Paul Boyer, director of financial aid, said that the new system was not implemented to save money but rather to benefit students. “The whole idea of students being able to keep their books and annotate their books far outweighs anything else,” Boyer said. He added that financial aid students no longer have to worry about waiting in line at the 1914 Library to borrow the books they need.

Nonetheless, Boyer said there is still reason to celebrate the College’s savings and the successful implementation of what was hailed as a cost-neutral system. “We spent about $40,000 more in the fall than we did in the spring,” Boyer said. “Coming within $40,000 of the old number is pretty good evidence that it was a cost-neutral change.”

Boyer said that while the 1914 Library was not very expensive to maintain, the real savings came with not having to spend money on book vouchers. Boyer explained that although the books purchased with vouchers became property of the library, it was nonetheless an expense that the College incurred every year. “We spent just under $100,000 for books bought with vouchers [in the fall].”

Richard Simpson, store manager of Water Street Books, said the store saw an increase in student business during the spring semester. Simpson said that unit sales have declined over the past several years, specifically in the amount of books sold to students compared to the total enrollment at the College. He attributed the increased sales to the ID swipe card system.

College Council (CC) is not actively involved in any program to encourage students to sell their books back to the bookstores, according to Joey Kiernan ’11, Class of 2011 representative. “CC was hoping to help realize the full value of the textbooks many students now own instead of borrow from 1914,” he said. “If it turns out students are not being given a fair price for their books, we will take steps to put together some sort of alternative buy-back program. However, it appears that current prices for some of the more expensive books are more than fair.”

Boyer described the used book market as a supply and demand situation. “I think it all depends on how much financial aid students want to hang onto their books,” he said of the possible expansion of a used book market on and around campus, as now more students are able to own, and consequently sell, their textbooks.

An additional change to the process of acquiring textbooks is the mandate of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which requires colleges to inform students at the time of course enrollment what textbooks and materials are required or recommended for courses.

While the mandate officially takes effect July 1, the College has already implemented the “BookLook” option, which allows students to view lists of required course texts online at the Registrar’s Office Web site.

“We wanted to start as soon as possible, during pre-registration rather than waiting until drop/add [period], to provide whatever benefit there might be to students right away,” said Charles Toomajian, registrar. “The purpose of providing the information is to allow students to have as much information about the course as possible and … to be able to purchase their books from a variety of sources since they will have the information before the course starts.”

Toomajian added that he hopes no students will choose courses on the basis of textbook costs. “This concern was one of the main reasons for the change in how book costs are handled for financial aid students,” he said.