When students in an honors business and professional communications course at Robert Morris University (Pa.) conducted research on textbooks, a survey revealed that 14 percent of their peers knew at least one student who dropped out of school because he or she could not afford to pay for textbooks. And when administrators learned of that finding, they took action.
In the fall of 2012, a textbook reserve program was born. The university purchases several copies of textbooks for the most in-demand courses on campus, placing them on reserve in the library for students to use for up to three hours at a time. The university spent approximately $10,500 to purchase 170 textbooks, spanning required general education courses. More than 850 students have made use of the textbooks, saving an estimated $300 each semester.
According to John Michalenko, vice president for student life and a member of RMU’s retention committee, the program is expected to grow next year. It has, he notes, “changed the culture of our classes. More teachers have had their eyes opened to the cost and are now promoting textbook sharing in class, or have reconsidered ordering a new edition of a textbook. They are also being creative with finding other low-cost online or self-created resources.”
How exactly did the program come to be? The retention committee met last spring to discuss the escalating cost of textbooks. At the same time, Michalenko’s wife, Julianne, a lecturer at RMU, was looking for a project for her honors sophomore business and professional communications course. “They did research on textbook costs and trends, and surveyed professors and students about their textbook habits,” he says. That’s when the connection between retention and these costs became clear. The class presented its findings to the retention committee and suggested the reserve program among other solutions.
“It was the most cost-effective option, and the survey said only 10 percent of RMU students were interested in e-books,” Michalenko shares. RMU took note of similar textbook reserve programs at The University of Texas at San Antonio and Patrick Henry College (Va.) as they developed a plan.
RMU has been working with its bookstore provider, Barnes & Noble, to purchase some of the reserve library books. “They didn’t see it as taking business away from the bookstore. They saw it as more of a partnership to provide a better, more affordable education for our students.”