The textbook market changes rapidly. Only ten years ago, online homework was a novelty, but now it’s almost ubiquitous. The newest change to hit course materials isn’t a new product but a delivery mechanism for educational materials – automatic textbook billing. Using various marketing names such as Inclusive Access, First Day Access, even Equitable Access, automatic billing has spread through colleges and universities across the country. 

No matter the name, these deals are the result of publishers and booksellers creating partnerships with institutions where the two parties negotiate on the price of materials, most often digital rentals of textbooks and homework platforms, and automatically bill the material to the student’s account. Legally, students must be given the option to opt-out of these charges, yet in practice, many students have run into logistical or practical difficulties. For example, some of these deals would require students to opt-out of access to all of their course materials in order to avoid purchasing one or two materials – for these students it’s all or nothing. 

Institutions enter these deals hoping to lower costs for students and streamline course content delivery. Despite the claims around student savings, we have serious concerns. In a review of contracts between institutions and booksellers from U.S. PIRG’s 2020 report, the report author found concerning clauses from uncapped annual price increases and steep quotas for student participation to limits on available print copies and restrictions on how institutions can communicate these agreements to the public. 

From a student perspective, automatic billing may lower the upfront cost in comparison to buying a new textbook but is not cheaper than sharing with a friend, using the free library copy, or often buying a used physical copy. Many students also prefer print textbooks or to keep their books at the end of the term. These deals can put limits or eliminate these options. Most simply though, it’s consumer poor practice for two parties to negotiate a price and charge a third party whether they intend to buy the product or not.

While it makes sense for institutions to seek bulk-purchasing discounts, these deals need common sense consumer protections to make sure students, educators, and institutions are all getting the best deal. 

  • Have the billing mechanism be opt-in and listed as one of many methods of payment alongside credit cards, cash, etc. that students can use at the bookstore.There is nothing wrong with institutions seeking to negotiate bulk discounts for students, but students should be able to choose whether to take advantage of it and how they pay.
  • Have a clearly marked pricing structure publicly available that shows the original price of the assigned material, the discount off the national list price, and multiple format options.
  • Cap annual price increases to no more than the rate of inflation, which is currently at 2.3 percent annually.
  • Eliminate quotas. The discounts alone ought to be enough to get students to participate at a high enough level to make a program worthwhile.
  • Reject attempts to restrict marketing materials that can be issued by the institution to educate students on their course materials purchasing options.
  • End any restrictions on the number of students who can obtain print copies.