Transparent Textbooks

On a quest to improve overall college affordability.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Rafter Sara LeoniSara Leoni is the motivated CEO of Rafter, Inc., an established course materials management company whose mission is to promote student success by making education accessible, affordable, and effective for all. Rafter is redesigning and transforming course materials management in higher education with its innovative textbooks-in-tuition solution, Rafter360. Rafter has helped hundreds of campuses and over 2.7 million students to save nearly $700 million on textbooks. Not bad for a group of people with a good idea wanting to change a common complaint students and parents have about higher education. Here, Sara talks about budgets, expenses, rising costs, the high price of success, and what a bit of technology can do to assist in creating affordable education for all.

What unbudgeted expenses are taking their toll on students?

Sara: We often hear from our partner schools that students and parents tend to focus on direct charges that appear on the student bill — specifically, the predictable and known cost of tuition and fees. Figuring out how to pay these charges is what gets students into the classroom, which is the goal for many students and parents, especially first-generation families. Affording these direct charges is made easier with institutional scholarships as well as Federal Student Assistance (FSA) in the form of grants, loans, and work study.

Even more students are coming to class without their required textbooks and are unprepared to learn, creating a cycle that promotes the idea that textbooks are optional, a major issue for colleges and universities.

However, what surprises many students is the cost of books and supplies. Course materials are the largest educational expense after tuition. In some cases, especially at 2-year schools, the cost of books can be greater than tuition, and therefore the largest educational expense overall. Even more unfortunately, the expense of textbooks and supplies is often not eligible for coverage by FSA.

Of course, if students are not expecting the high cost of their course materials, they are not budgeting appropriately. The College Board estimates that students should set aside on average $1,200 for books and supplies each year, but in a survey that we conducted of over 10,000 students from colleges across the country, 93 percent are budgeting less than half that amount, and in fact 45 percent of respondents budgeted $100 or less per term.

How does the rising cost of course materials affect a student’s decision on whether or not to purchase all of his/her required textbooks?

Sara: The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that students are treating course materials as “increasingly optional,” opting out of acquiring them due to cost. Students are simply not prepared for the unbudgeted out-of-pocket expense of textbooks. Many times, they do not have the money to afford pricey textbooks and are forced to choose between purchasing them or paying for necessity items like food, clothing, or rent.

With a large percentage of students showing up to classes without books, faculty have gone to extreme measures to provide comparable education for all students. In classes where professors have adapted their curriculum to support students without books, those students that are able to afford and acquire their pricey textbooks question why they purchased them in the first place since they aren’t being used.

The overall value to price ratio around textbooks has completely diminished in the eyes of students. They perceive textbooks as expensive, burdensome, and unnecessary. They don’t understand why they can’t simply download pirated versions or search for the information online. In these cases, students face potential copyright infringement issues or access inaccurate, misleading information that may conflict with what is being taught in the classroom.

Even more students are coming to class without their required textbooks and are unprepared to learn, creating a cycle that promotes the idea that textbooks are optional, a major issue for colleges and universities.

How are professors impacted by the increasing trend of students not having all of their materials due to cost?

Sara: Faculty are impacted by students either getting textbooks late or not acquiring them at all. We recently conducted a student survey, which found that 70 percent of students have waited until after the first day of class to purchase their textbooks. Faced with a classroom full of students unprepared to complete assignments, even weeks after the class has started, faculty must either adjust the syllabus – a choice that affects the depth of instruction for every student in the class – or accept that they are leaving students behind.

We’ve also learned of a number of ad hoc approaches that faculty take to try and compensate for students without textbooks, such as putting their copies of the books on reserve in the library, creating “book funds” to help students purchase textbooks, or copying extensive sections of books. These approaches, while an honest effort to solve the problem, have actually made the problem worse by validating that students can get by without their books.

How else are the high textbook prices influencing overall student success?

Sara: The high price of textbooks create a divide on campus between the students able to afford them and those who can’t. We’ve heard from schools that first-generation, low-income students are especially affected, as they often have a difficult transition from high school to college. These students need to feel like they belong in the first days and weeks on campus. However, then they are hit with the unforeseen expense of textbooks, which they often can’t afford. This situation can create the sense that college might not be for them and can lead to students dropping out.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 25 percent of students earn a poor or failing grade due to not having a textbook because of cost and 24 percent of students drop courses or withdraw from courses due to the high cost of textbooks. In addition, our recent student survey found that nearly half of the students who did not have their books on the first day of class felt it had a negative impact on them, either in comprehension, participation, impression on the professor, or stress level.

Students that have all of their textbooks on day one are prepared to learn and this leads to better student outcomes. We are seeing our schools report increases in Fall-to-Fall retention and improvements in GPAs when students have all of their required materials on day one.

How does Rafter’s program, Rafter360, help schools improve affordability?

Sara: Rafter360 is the first all-inclusive solution that enables colleges and universities to provide 100 percent of their students with 100 percent of their required course materials by the first day of class, all at a rate that is substantially below commercial market prices. Our solution improves overall college access and affordability by making the cost of required educational content predictable through a flat-rate charge, included on the student bill.

The most evident way that Rafter360 helps schools improve overall college affordability is by providing substantial savings to students on the cost of their course materials. The flat rate from Rafter is generally 50 percent or more below retail costs. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 35 percent of students take fewer courses due to textbook costs, and of course, taking less courses means extending their time to graduation and adding thousands of dollars to the overall cost of a college degree.

The program also turns the unbudgeted expense of course materials into a predictable cost, included on the student bill. Students and parents are more able to financially plan when they know exactly how much they will be spending, upfront, with no surprises. Having the cost included the student bill also allows financial aid and other payment plans to be used – the same methods that students use to pay for tuition.

By removing the surprise expense of course materials and lowering the cost of those materials overall, students can accelerate their time to graduation and save thousands of dollars on the cost of a college degree. This puts college affordability within reach for more students.

Can you provide any specific examples of how Rafter360 has benefited schools?

Sara: In addition to helping institutions improve overall college affordability, the data available through the Rafter360 technology platform gives an unparalleled amount of transparency and control to administrators and faculty pertaining to course materials on their campus. Faculty retain complete academic freedom with our intuitive Adopt tool, where they can choose whichever educational content they want, no matter the format or edition. Administrators can see the true cost drivers of educational materials at their institution and find innovative ways to control those cost drivers.

Faculty retain complete academic freedom with our intuitive Adopt tool, where they can choose whichever educational content they want, no matter the format or edition. Administrators can see the true cost drivers of educational materials at their institution and find innovative ways to control those cost drivers.

When it comes to improving student success, schools using Rafter360 have seen marked improvements. Schreiner University created the “Schreiner Experience” that included Rafter360 along with other high-impact programs, including service learning, internships, and study abroad, to improve retention and student engagement on their campus. Included in the cost of tuition, the savings that they gained on course materials from Rafter360 allowed them to make those high-impact programs available to all students without adding to the total cost of attendance. As a result, the Freshman Fall to Fall retention improved by 3 percent and the university set a historic record for enrollment in Fall 2015 (1,230 students). In addition, GPA for the academic year 2014-2015 improved and overall persistence improved.

Thomas More College launched the “Saints Experience,” with Rafter360 as part of the suite of services included. The “Saints Experience” with Rafter360 is helping the university retain and attract more students: traditional enrollment has increased 13 percent. In addition, Thomas More University was ranked the number one college in Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati for return on investment in a 2015 PayScale report

Approximately 50 percent of the students at Mars Hill University hold Federal Pell Grants and more than 50percent are first-generation college students. While Mars Hill takes great pride in providing an educational opportunity for students who might not otherwise have that opportunity, financial strains cause far too many of its students to struggle and sometimes drop out. Partnering with Rafter has helped the university level the playing field for all students by making the cost of textbooks a budgeted expense that is included in tuition. As a result, overall Fall to Spring retention was the highest since the 2008-2009 academic year. In addition, Freshman Fall to Spring retention was the highest it’s been since 2008-2009.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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