The Course Materials Paradox

By Suzanne Donnelly | December 12, 2022

The Course Materials Paradox – How Campus Stores Helped Create it and How We Help Solve It

How did the process for providing required textbooks/course materials to college students get to be such a mess? Even in the relatively simple landscape of 25 years ago when books were either new or used, and students might have a choice of 2 or 3 physical locations to shop at, the path from a professor deciding to adopt a text and all students in that professor’s class actually having it had many points along the way where students or books or both could lose their way. Now, any given adoption may have more than a dozen format/price options, each offered by a myriad of different stores or platforms. Enter the course materials paradox.

My Perspective

For most of my years in the course materials/collegiate retail world, textbook managers like me believed we couldn’t do much to change the fundamentals of the market – publishers set the prices, and faculty chose the materials. We knew that textbook prices were a burden for many students, but all we could do was offer alternatives to the list price of a new book – by buying and selling used copies, and stocking different formats when available. Then came rentals, then e-books. But all those prices were all derived from that new list price – which we had zero influence on. [Editor’s Note: College bookstores receive textbooks from publishers at net price or list price which impacts retail pricing]

Starting in the mid-2000s, thanks to Amazon and the rapid growth of tertiary used book marketplaces, the choice matrix for students expanded further. On top of that, the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act required that when faculty adopted books bundled with supplements or access codes, campus stores had to list ISBN and price information for every component, each of which could also have multiple prices and potential sources.

Real World Example

This is what an algebra student at my university currently sees when they look up their course materials:

Course materials paradox

There’s a required bundle, the hardback and loose-leaf versions of the book in the bundle, the courseware access code either as a printed code or a virtual online code, and a VitalSource e-book of the required book. Every single listed item in the left-hand column in turn branches out a scrolling list of purchase and rental options on the right.

Real World Challenges

It’s no wonder so many students – nearly 27% according to the most recent National Association of College Stores’ Student Watch survey – end up choosing ‘none of the above’ for at least one course.  It’s not just about whether the material is affordable, although that is definitely important.  But in the face of too many choices there may not even be a conscious decision to skip a given book, rather a failure to decide anything at all and therefore take no action. It’s what behavioral economics refer to as ‘the paradox of choice’.  Another related concept is the concept of “friction” – that the more decisions one must navigate to accomplish a given task or reach a given outcome, the more likely failure is.

More Options ≠ Better

Unsurprisingly, even as campus stores added all these options in the name of affordability and transparency, they lost market share and revenue while their staff were working harder to manage all these options. More campuses leased out stores, or just their textbook operations. Some even contracted textbook provision out to Amazon.  Some institutions experimented with bulk site-license deals with publishers that bypassed the bookstore altogether. For stores, it didn’t seem there was any way out of the paradox we’d helped create

Game Changer

Enter…Inclusive Access, or IA (or Day One or First Day Access). Automating delivery of materials and requiring students to opt OUT rather than actively choose to purchase de-fragments the market. That leverages the total enrollment potential for each class to finally give stores bargaining power to lower publisher pricing, and to do it for all enrolled students, not just those lucky enough to find a cheap copy on Amazon.

When UC Davis first proposed this model one of the biggest criticisms leveled against it was that it took choices away from students and ‘forced’ them into using digital. When you think about it though, that’s not true at all – what it actually did was reduce a dizzyingly branched decision tree down to two primary options: 1) Stay opted in and the materials are provided to you automatically 2) Opt-out and navigate the decision tree to find the materials on your own.  Students still have a choice – it’s just that option #1 has the least friction.

And it turns out, students have enough other friction points in their academic and personal lives most of them don’t miss having to figure out multiple format and price point options and navigate multiple e-commerce and publisher sites just to be able to get started with their course materials. Who knew?

Well, most of us in the course materials world probably did know that intuitively, we just didn’t have the tools and technology or business processes available to us to reduce that friction and lower costs at the same time – and now we do.

Game Changer Evolution

What’s the next step out of the course materials maze? Taking the IA concept of automated delivery on an opt-out basis to the institution level, Equitable Access or EA once again simplifies the decision tree for students. No longer do they have to decide “In” or “Out” for each adopted item for each class participating in an IA program, it’s “In” to get all required course materials automatically, or “Out” to figure it out on your own. Again, there’s still a choice, and it’s simple to understand – certainly simpler than that picture from our website. We’re hoping to launch our version of EA soon.

Wrap Up

Acquiring required textbooks has long been one of the first and hardest unofficial tests in the “hidden curriculum”, that unspoken and unwritten assumed bank of institutional know-how that keeps so many students from non-privileged backgrounds from succeeding in college. I’ve even heard certain professors over the years say things like “well if they can’t figure out how to find the book they shouldn’t be in college”. But it shouldn’t be that way, and now thanks in large part to the advent of digital materials we have the tools to make this particular part of college an ‘open book’ test for everyone.



Suzanne Donnelly started working in the higher education course materials industry in 1994, at the University Bookstore for Idaho State University. Since then she has worked for both leased and self-operated stores serving institutions ranging from small community colleges to large public universities. She has served as the Senior Associate Director of Bronco Bookstore at Cal Poly Pomona since 2010. Additionally she has volunteered for the National Association of College Stores (NACS), the Independent College Bookstore Association (ICBA) and served as President of the California Association of College Stores (CACS). When she’s not obsessing over course materials affordability she relaxes via Doctor Who fandom, baking and hiking. Pronouns: she/her, opinions her own.”