The first day of classes begins. You trudge through the Evanston tundra into your first class. As syllabi are flying around the lecture hall, you scramble for a seat. The professor’s introduction starts off well until he pulls out the syllabus and begins discussing course materials.
One textbook. Fine. That’s manageable. Might be a bit expensive, but hey, you need them to learn, right? $100 isn’t that bad for the value of a Northwestern education. But wait, the professor’s not done.
“All of your homeworks will be completed on Sapling.”
Very well. Not all classes upload homeworks to Canvas. What’s the damage in that? All seems well until checking the Sapling website and realizing that in order to do homework assignments, you’ll need to shell out another $40.
Alright, now you’re getting concerned. $140 for just one class?
As you sink in your seat thinking about how you will manage to get all $140 together in the next few days, the final bombshell lands: there is a course packet full of readings for the class. Price tag: $30 for a bunch of articles the professor copy and pasted into a packet.
Almost $200 for a single class. All of the material is required ASAP otherwise you’ll be behind and miss homework assignments.
The meteoric rise in textbook costs is not a new phenomenon. According to the University of Michigan, “between December of 1986 and December of 2004, textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation, increasing by 186 percent.” At the very least, textbooks can be resold via marketplaces like Northwestern Free and For Sale on Facebook to reclaim some of the expenses. Better yet, textbooks may be bought on the same platform so that there is no need to buy them at retail price.
Then there’s the paywalls. These range from having to buy access codes, which cost about $100 apiece and prevent any resale, to course packets sold by professors themselves at outrageous prices for the value that they offer.
Northwestern professors have made some progress in reducing textbook prices and the financial burden for students. A recent Daily Northwestern article details how professors have negotiated with publishers and changed their textbook requirements to allow for less recent, cheaper textbook editions since most content does not change significantly from edition to edition.
Paywalls soak up the textbook savings and then some. Worse yet, there is pressure on students regarding whether to continue with classes due to the non-refundable price of additional course purchases like WebAssign.
Aldo Montes, a Weinberg sophomore, faced this situation while taking Math 230. After an initial two-week free online trial, “I had to pay for Math 230 for their online thing [homework]. It was a hundred dollars or something, and I didn’t really wanna pay that, but I ended up getting it for cheaper, so I stayed in the class. I was definitely considering dropping [Math 230] before I got the discount,” Montes said.
In some classes, the readings, homework and quizzes are all rolled into one massive paywall. How is a student interested in the class, but unsure of whether to drop it or not going to even see what the course material is? By paying the extravagant sums, of course.
For an institution that has made considerable progress on reducing the financial burden of classes for students, paywalls are the next major venture that Northwestern faculty must address to promote financial inclusivity. There are few things worse than dropping a class in the first week or switching to a different course and subsequently losing $100 that was used just to see what the course would be like. This is not acceptable, and at the very least, expansions of free trials like the one offered to Montes as well as free introductions to the course material must become the norm for Northwestern classes.