Isaac: It's a brand new year and textbooks are still a barrier to my education

    Books and online materials are important to our education, the problem is, not everyone can afford them. Low-income and first-generation students most frequently deal with this issue, but so do struggling middle-class students, who swim in an unending river of debt that only becomes more and more perilous.

    Take, for example, one of the required textbooks for Macroeconomics 201 this quarter: Krugman and Wells’ Macroeconomics . It is available for $70 as an e-book through Barnes and Noble. The professor recommends students buy it through Sapling, which makes it $50.

    That is one of several charges that add up to an unreasonable amount.  Add that $50 to the $40 I have to spend to get onto Sapling (a required online resource) in the first place, and we are now at an estimated $90 cost, excluding taxes. Add to this the required (and perhaps unnecessary) $20 course packet, and we have already arrived at a $110 estimate for one class. (But wait!) In the last half of the class, it becomes apparent that students will also need a calculator that can do log functions, so add roughly $20 to our current estimate if, like me, you don’t have your high school calculator handy because you always borrowed yours from your high school.

    My wallet is already in pain. Remember, this is just one class.

    Students do have access to Facebook pages like Free & For Sale, where Northwestern students are able to buy and sell textbooks. Other students will commit a piracy crime to secure the required textbook, cutting their $130 estimate down to $80. However, the economics department could do more to increase financial accessibility, and post the course materials on Canvas, further eliminating a cost barrier to this class. When I prompted the professor during a class break about putting the materials of this course packet on Canvas, the professor simply said to me that what I was asking for simply wasn’t possible. Furthermore, I “could share with another student,” placing the burden of inaccessibility back onto my shoulders. In a later conversation, my professor did agree to donate 10 course packets to Student Enrichment Services, which does recognize those with the greatest need. However, this is a band-aid to the greater issue of wide-scale accessibility.

    This lack of attention to detail when it comes to making courses more affordable for students is not just exclusive my Econ class. When I spoke with a representative of the French department about the prohibitive $200 cost of my textbook, he didn’t even know what the cost of my materials was at first.

    I am taking a full load this quarter. In addition to economics and French, I have Theorizing Blackness and Intro to Greek Lit. All together, the cost of my materials for this quarter comes to $372. As a full-Pell Grant recipient who values her education, spending this much just to be able to do my homework is extremely difficult.

    When faced with such ludicrous costs for educational materials, my first step was to go to SES – the primary office on campus for students who routinely face cost-barrier issues while at Northwestern.

    During my visit, I found there is very little recourse.

    Besides Free and For Sale and financial aid refunds, the best option is a short term $500 loan that Financial Aid can give students, which will have to be repaid before the end of the quarter. I could do this and make it work, but keep in mind that with just the two classes thus far, I am already past the halfway mark of this short-term loan. For students who are unable to get a used textbook cheaply, they are paying the full $372 cost for books.

    So, now the obvious question: why can’t SES dispense funds for books? Books and supplies are included in something called Cost of Attendance, and therefore, federal regulations can present challenges and barriers in SES partnering with Financial Aid. SES is currently taking book and materials donations for their own lending library, which helps mitigate these issues. However, you can’t do a lending library for online access to complete your homework, which I’ve noticed is becoming more and more of a requirement in many classes across different subjects.

    SES is currently piloting a program in which a certain amount of funding has been dispensed to a select number of first-year students as a way for them to purchase books without strain. The number of students in this program is incredibly small, and they were handpicked according to certain criteria. If this program goes well, there is intent to expand it to a wider number of students. However, professors must also ensure that the materials they use are not a financial barrier. The first step is to discontinue the use of course packets within the classroom, and to continue to use Canvas as a tool for accessibility going forward.

    However, when students have to purchase expensive online materials like Sapling, McGraw Hill, and Pearson just to do homework, even the internet becomes a barrier. The University should purchase licenses for these services like it did for Matlab. A university license would support students regardless of economic status, which is especially important since there are so many struggling middle-class students at Northwestern who don’t have access to SES resources.

    Financial aid does budget the cost of books into students’ tuition, but many of us may not have money on hand for books at the start of the quarter. The way the cost of books is budgeted into my fall quarter financial aid is as a Summer-Work contribution. This is a $2,500 estimate that they recommend I have on hand when I come to campus. Even with programs like SIGP and the Undergraduate Research Grant, which both give roughly 3K in funds for summer opportunities, a student can’t expect to have $2,500 at the end of the summer when rent, food, and transportation is budgeted out for 8 weeks. It’s a completely unrealistic expectation. Last year, I did the Summer Academic Workshop, which added my Summer-Work Contribution directly onto my package and cushioned my first year as a Northwestern student. Now that I no longer have that cushion, I’m back to worrying about my finances.

    I am a student at Northwestern at a time where the University has been very vocal about the need for socioeconomic diversity on this campus. I agree, and I have seen strides made on behalf of the administration to assist students in my demographic, which are greatly appreciated. However, it remains unjust to increase the socioeconomic diversity of students on this campus without increasing the amount of basic support for the most vulnerable students as they try to succeed. There are grants and stipends for internships and study abroad, but we have not tackled the basic necessity of books and required course materials.

    I would like to move away from a survival mindset when I engage with my education, so that I may feel free to fail, and therefore feel free to learn in the ways people everywhere at this school are encouraging me to. However, freedom to fail is about more than a mental shift. It is about cushioning or erasing the negative consequences that failure brings, in order to create academic, intellectual and personal growth. A student from a low-income background is the least able to do this on their own because the world asked them to take up adult responsibilities long before they reached college. This means that when you are in a position where college would never have been possible for you without scholarship money, failure is almost never an option because you literally cannot afford to fail. Take the wrong course; buy the wrong, unreturnable book; and you may have no more resources to draw from. It is a recurring catch-22 in the lives of students like myself. It is an ordeal that means if the University truly wants to provide for the most vulnerable students, it will have to put its money where its mouth is.


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