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CT students, university staff clash over proposed textbook fee

Several students spoke at a March Board of Regents meeting opposing an automatic textbook billing fee.
YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT
Several students spoke at a March Board of Regents meeting opposing an automatic textbook billing fee.

A plan to charge a new textbook fee at Connecticut state universities failed Thursday afternoon after several students, staffers and members of the Board of Regents expressed concerns and confusion about whether the fee would be more harmful than beneficial to enrolled students.

But outstanding questions led to a decision to reconsider the issue next month.

The Equitable Access Program Fee would charge students $18.75 per credit each semester to cover the price of all required textbooks and course materials through a contract with Barnes & Noble.

Under the proposal, a full-time student would pay between $225 for 12 credits to $337.50 for 18 credits per semester. Students would be able to opt-out of the fee during the add and drop period each semester, starting in fall 2024.

Several students voiced opposition to the fee during the public comment period of the March Board of Regents meeting held Thursday.

About a dozen students and staff members cited concerns with the opt-out model, arguing that many students are unaware of these “hidden costs,” and “their ability to decline the charge.” Students also argued that there’s often cheaper ways to find class material other than campus bookstores and that some classes don’t require textbooks.

“Data indicates only 36% of courses at Eastern [Connecticut State University] in the spring 2024 semester necessitated paid textbooks with many courses utilizing materials from freely accessible sources,” said Jennifer Croughwell, a student at Eastern who has garnered over 1,200 signatures on an online petition. “Under this deal, all students will be automatically signed up to pay $18.75 per credit per semester … regardless whether the courses require textbooks or not. … The system office, or Barnes & Noble, has not provided any data regarding the cost per major — leaving students in the dark about the potential impact.”

Many of the public comments called the proposal a “junk fee” which is defined as an “unnecessary, unavoidable, or surprise charge that inflate prices while adding little to no value,” by The White House.

“As recently as March 15, the Biden-Harris administration distributed a fact sheet making it clear that they wish to establish regulations that would prohibit the very kind of automatic textbook billing program that is being proposed here today,” said Eileen Rhodes, the interim library director at CT State Community College.

Administrators within the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities systems countered that though they understood the concerns being presented, these were also riddled with misinformation.

“It has been mentioned that the United States Department of Education has been looking into what is colloquially being called ‘junk fees’ … [which] include document fees, technology fees and other fees that literally students do not have a choice to opt-out. … But I want us to be clear that this fee — which would replace the cost of textbooks — is something obviously that can opted out of,” said Chancellor Terrence Cheng, adding that the fee extends beyond textbooks but to all course materials.

“All materials are included for any class — so if you’re in a nursing program, and you are a nursing student, all your textbooks, all your materials — except for the goggles,” Cheng continued. “It concerns me when statements are made that a program like this would hurt students. All of the diligence and all of the research we have done does not show that.”

Lloyd Blanchard, the CSCU interim vice president for administration and CFO, also presented a slideshow where he doubled down on the idea that the flat fee would save some students money as others would be able to opt-out if it didn’t make sense financially.

“Students have a choice,” Blanchard said. “We’ve seen books that you can buy online for $10, $20, but we also know from that experience that there are books out there that are well over $100 and it can be as high as $300. … Our goal here is to touch as many students as we can, then those students who feel like they can get a better deal, … can opt-out as easily as pressing a button.”

But, that wasn’t the end of clashing opinions.

As the motion carried for a vote, debate among members of the Board of Regents broke out, with many expressing confusion.

“One of my biggest concerns is why is there such a disconnect — in terms of the intention, what we’re trying to accomplish, the benefits of the program versus the concerns and the perception of potential harm?” Regent Juanita James said. “Why is there such disconnect in terms of the faculty and the students feeling that they have not gotten enough information or had enough input?”

“I think too many questions have been unanswered. … There’s a petition signed by over 1,000 people. There are many, many letters. There’s an administrative faculty senate resolution that asked questions about application. We have union leadership statement against it,” said Colena Sesanker, a professor of philosophy at CT State Community College and chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee to the Board of Regents. “If this is as clearly justified and in our students favor as it has been presented, then there’s clearly been a failure of process in all of this and this happens way too often at this board meeting.”

The motion to approve the fee ultimately failed, but the Board of Regents agreed to hold a special meeting in April to reconsider the issue.

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.