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  • Ufon Umanah

Of Textbooks and Tuition

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

By Ufon Umanah

Someone once asked me, “How do Columbia’s wealth demographics affect student life?” This month, the student councils have given a muddled but nuanced answer.

A proposal before Scott Wright, Vice President of Campus Services, to raise student tuition by a certain amount in order to pay for and distribute textbooks through a bulk deal with Barnes & Noble has faced mixed reactions from the deans of the undergraduate schools and their respective student councils.

Certain details about the proposal are still up in the air. Based on an estimation of student book costs, the proposal suggests a tuition increase of $600 per semester. If Columbia committed the same amount of money in financial aid as it currently does after the tuition increase, the University could see up to $4,093,236 to pay for the textbooks. While in the Engineering Student Council (ESC), Bwog reported that the proposal would treat textbooks as a class resource to be returned at the end of the year, in the Columbia College Student Council (CCSC) a week later, this part of the proposal was unclear.

Many representatives made clear that they felt this policy was “a pretty extreme response” to address the high price of textbooks, as Disability Services Representative Aaron Liberman said. In CCSC, many remarked that they didn’t pay $600 in textbook costs per year since those costs depend on the major, and Vice President of Finance Adam Resheff noted that “there are students who aren’t necessarily on financial aid, that Columbia deems that they can afford to pay but in reality it’s a very hard strain on the family."

General Studies students, who don’t receive the same guarantee of financial aid as students from Columbia College or SEAS do, would also definitely feel an impact in their pocketbooks. So would international students, since, as International Students Representative Beom Joon Baek said, “the standard [for] getting financial aid is significantly more difficult.” Specifically, while admitted international students receive financial aid based on 100% demonstrated need, Columbia states that “the admissions committee takes into consideration how much financial aid a student requires when rendering an admissions decision.”

Part of the problem is that for Columbia, according to University Senator Alfredo Dominguez, money is tight. While Brown University and other schools have been able to pay for textbook vouchers, Columbia has a “large first-generation low-income population,” and doesn’t have the money to support those students through a voucher program. And according to Gender and Sexuality Representative Kwolanne Felix, vulnerable students are forced to drop classes over not being able to afford textbooks at all.

Other representatives presented additional concerns about the proposal. Some focused on the monopoly the bulk deal would give to Barnes and Noble, potentially hurting independent bookstores like Book Culture. However, most of the additional concern came from the University’s decision to address textbook costs in this particular way. 2021 Class Representative Skye Bork thought the proposal was not “the most efficient or effective way” to address the textbook problem. Representatives looked more favorably on expanding access to a PDF library, using second-hand textbooks, or using the Columbia Libraries system—various ways in which Columbia could change the way it accesses textbooks rather than asking students to pay more for them.

However, there are significant problems with each of these suggested alternatives. Columbia cannot violate copyright law by distributing free PDFs, and many first-generation low-income students wouldn’t have access to the student networks that do distribute them. Second-hand libraries, like those of the the Columbia and Barnard First-Generation Low-Income Partnership (FLIP), are available, but both locations are small, and Barnard has resorted to throwing out their books as a result. And the Columbia Libraries already has the reserve system, and relies on books outside Columbia University. There is already a patchwork of solutions in place, and while professors can shift to open-source textbooks and not require textbooks they authored for their own classes, as representatives from both CCSC and ESC suggested, one presumes that a formal system would erase uncertainty from first-generation low-income students who have to think about this instead of studying.

That isn’t to say that the proposal is bereft of logistical problems either. With the shopping period and the amount of time allotted to drop classes, one wonders, as Liberman did, whether students who dropped classes would return the books bought for them. It was unclear how Scott Wright and Columbia arrived at $600 as the average, and whether, as both councils suggested, a lower price point would be easier to swallow. In fact, Bwog reported that ESC found that “the tuition hike may be worthwhile for some students, if lowered.” The additional fees, as currently proposed, would provide sufficiently robust funding that as many as 60% of students could opt-out of paying for and receiving textbooks while still covering the textbook costs for those with the greatest need. Were the tuition hike reduced, though, fewer students could opt-out of the program before it failed to meet the demonstrated need of the low-income students for whom the program is designed.

For advocates of first-generation low-income students, frustration with the student councils was palpable.

As Liberman recognized later into the night, a lot of ideas advanced in the general body meeting were long-term projects in a bureaucratic system. Dominguez warned that fellow representatives “need to do more work in thinking about how [they] function as representatives,” especially since many of them “ran on the idea of supporting marginalized backgrounds.” Another representative, 2022 Class Representative Leighlani Sanchez found “it really frustrating that it takes this policy for me to hear the most productive conversation around cheaper and better methods for accessing books for first-generation, low-income students.”

It’s unclear where Scott Wright and Senator Dominguez move forward from the student council meetings. While the decision is up to the undergraduate Deans, the Deans were also divided over whether to approve the plan, although no specific comments were given. As the proposal returns to the drawing board, one might reflect on Columbia demographics. Columbia University admits 13.4% of its students from the top 1%, making $630K a year, according to a New York Times study from 2017. For Barnard, it was 17.1%. From people making below $65K a year, the bottom 60%, the schools admit 21.1% and 22.4% respectively. Based on the opt-out numbers, it seems that a shared burden between the top 1% and the bottom 60% would almost solve the problem. Never has the divide between the haves and the have-nots spoken louder.


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