We know that college students’ tastes for digital services have the power to make companies snap to attention. A recent example is publishing giant Pearson’s dive into the world of textbook subscriptions in hopes of making itself more appealing to students shopping around for the best deal.
But what about campus bookstores, which are often tied more intimately to colleges? How do they compete in an era when students are perfectly happy ordering what they need online?
At the University of Alaska Anchorage, the answer was to embrace the changing times. Now the its bookstore space is a go-to spot for hoodies, snacks and for faculty to get some tech support. But there’s a notable absence of one thing—textbooks.
The university shifted two years ago to a fully virtual bookstore, one where faculty can post their required reading and students can place their orders (or keep shopping around). It’s a change that David Weaver, executive director of Campus Services for the university, says staunched the financial woes caused by the flailing bookstore, while keeping affordable textbook options open for its students.
“Historically we had a nice beautiful brick and mortar bookstore,” Weaver says, with a place for community lectures and a small Apple store. “The sense of place was lovely for people my age, where that was a part of my undergrad and graduate experience. As time went on, the bookstore came closer and closer to just breaking even.”
The new model, serviced by online bookstore platform Akademos, allows students to view a class’ textbook cost before registering for a class. The service can distribute open educational resources, or OER, textbooks that are available to professors and students for free. It’s also integrated into the university’s payment system, allowing users to charge books to their student account.
“If we aren’t the lowest cost option for that student, affordability trumps our ability to earn revenue from textbook sales,” Weaver says. “If I have a choice between three sections of a course, and one has OER and one has a $200 or $300 textbook, I want to know that because that’s a factor in my choice.”
Niraj Kaji, Akademos CEO, predicts more universities will follow Weaver and his institution’s example. Campus bookstores are feeling what he calls the “Tower Records effect,” where ecommerce has made a physical storefront ineffective. Just as streaming and digital sales led to a decline in stores selling CDs, digital course material has impacted bookstores.
“About five to 10 years ago, students started to vote with their wallets and decide they’re going to buy their book materials online,” Kaji says, which has led to declining bookstore sales.
Kaji says that five years ago, about 8 percent of course materials were digital. Now that number has risen to 40 percent, and he only sees it growing from there.
The Alaska campus’ online bookstore has relieved the university from the complicated exercise of guessing how many physical copies of each book it needed to stock. It’s no simple task to get pallets of books shipped to Alaska, and Weaver says the university had a tough time keeping up with textbook rentals offered by companies like Chegg that were expanding their hold on the market. The campus bookstore was running a deficit in the millions by 2019, he adds, and was looking for a solution.
At the same time, Weaver says university officials were thinking about the burden of textbook costs on students. Take for example, he says, a student who borrows $1,000 per year in loans to cover course materials. Then multiply that by the four or five years it will take to complete an undergraduate degree.
“If she comes from a more humble working class or working poor household, which many University of Alaska Anchorage students have, by the time she pays her student loans off, $4,000 to $5,000 in textbooks could have become $10,000,” Weaver posits. “Affordability and transparency, those things trump everything else. That’s what our students want.”
The university’s data supports that. A survey issued to students this fall shows that 89 percent of respondents said they were moderately or very satisfied with the platform. This semester, 40 percent of students purchased their books through the online store, with the remaining 60 percent reporting they made their purchases elsewhere, were assigned OER materials or had no required textbook. As for the bookstore, it now serves as a general campus store, and its smaller footprint has made space for a student enrollment center.
Beyond affordability, Kaji says the shift to digital course materials can help universities intervene and support their students in a way traditional textbooks can’t. What if digital textbooks could alert a professor or adviser that a student hasn’t opened their textbook yet, or even pinpoint where they were struggling?
“If someone hasn’t accessed the material in seven days, that may be a yellow flag indicator to ask, ‘Is everything OK?’” Kaji says. “It has to be done with a lot of care with privacy, but as we’re thinking about the whole area of course content, we see those trends. There’s an opportunity for better data capture to help the university.”