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Access Expanded: A look into U. Spanish program's departure from access code

Starting from this academic year, the University’s Spanish Language Program stopped using “Sol y viento,” a textbook published by McGraw-Hill that requires an access code.

Catalina Méndez Vallejo and Sylvia Zetterstrand, acting co-directors of the Program, described several issues that they were having with the textbook and its complementary online platform.


“[Students were] paying so much for this textbook that costs so much, doesn’t arrive on time, comes in black and white, we have all these issues with the website, and we weren’t really 100 percent happy with the kind of text that was in the textbook anyway. So all of that in combination drove us to creating our own thing,” Méndez Vallejo said.

The Spanish Language Program now uses aprendo.princeton.edu, a University-run site that has material for beginners through intermediate to advanced levels of language learning. Assigned work is now all online, and words that may be too advanced for students have hyperlinks that lead to photos or translation dictionaries, such as WordReference.com, so that students can more effectively learn new vocabulary and grammar concepts.

This change is in line with a September 2016 report, “Access Denied,” which found that the access codes that come with textbooks are overpriced and unfair to students.

The report was written by the Student Public Interest Research Groups, a group of independent statewide student organizations that focus on social issues such as consumer and environmental protection and hunger and homelessness.

The report zeroes in on the high price and market of access codes, a one-time use serial number, and an often-mandatory component of grading for courses, which is relevant to many of the University's language courses.

“The biggest finding that we came up with was that 32 percent of courses, across institutions and majors, included access codes among the required course material,” Ethan Senack, one of the authors of the report and the federal Higher Education Advocate for U.S. PIRG, said. “We’ve never been shy about calling the publishers out for their predatory tactics when it comes to college textbooks,” he added.


According to the report, private four-year institutions, like the University, hold courses where on average one-fifth of them require access codes. For public four-year institutions, the percentage rises to one-fourth of courses, and for community colleges it is 37.5 percent.

The report notes that two-thirds of students have skipped buying a textbook because of its cost, and half of students reported that textbook prices have impacted which and how many courses to take in a given semester.

“We wanted to get some solid information out there to paint a picture about the state of the textbook market, but then also to sound a consumer alert on behalf of students,” Senack added.

“Publishers are limiting student’s ability to reduce costs, to find no-cost or low-cost alternatives, and just keep their profits high. Unless somebody called them out, they’re going to look really good doing it,” he added, noting that while access codes are cheaper than most printed textbooks, the codes are ultimately worse for students. He explained how students will often have alternative methods for obtaining books, such as borrowing from a friend, renting from library, or buying used copies.

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“We’ve gotten to a place now where those alternatives have made the print textbook market unsustainable,” he said.

Senack noted that publishers looked for, and found, a new business model through access codes.

According to the report, the average cost of buying an access code by itself, meaning not included with the textbook or any primary materials, is $100.24. Less than one-third of college bookstores offer access codes in this unbundled form, forcing students to pay nearly double for both a new textbook and the access code.

Labyrinth Books co-owner Dorothea von Moltke said that only one University course, a Japanese language class, offers the option of buying the access code separately from the textbook.

Claire Meyer, who also works at Labyrinth Books, explained that the prices of textbooks and access codes are set by publishers and that it is rare for the retailers to price the items lower and go against the guidelines set by publishers. She added that access codes, as well as other materials such as books, spiral-bound workbooks, and iClickers, are eligible for the 30 percent student discount for all University students.

Most often, prices can be negotiated between publishers and University professors. Publishers may then choose to lower prices for a certain course textbook, and Labyrinth will then sell it at a lower cost.

Anthony Sgro ’18 and Rhoda Lynch ’19, who are both enrolled in the Spanish 107 course, said have been enjoying the free, online platform that the department provides.

“It’s actually all online, and there’s no textbook required, and it’s the best thing on the planet… Everything is free,” Sgro said, “You could just easily look up whatever unit you’re learning online and do it there. [Using a code] was completely unnecessary to anything I learned in [Spanish 102] because I could have just easily looked it up.”

Lynch agreed. “$120 for a code to do exercises that you could definitely do on a handout, or do online for free, that’s definitely a rip off,” she said.

When Lynch was taking the introductory Spanish class last year, she borrowed the required textbook from a friend and bought the access code separately. Sgro bought a new textbook that came with the code, but paid about a hundred dollars more than Lynch. He noted that he wished students knew they could buy the access code separately to cut down on costs, rather than buying the book with the code and spending more.

Kathleen Ma ’18, who also bought the book separately from the code to cut down on costs, noted that she had the means but no desire to purchase the code in the first place.

“I found Connect [the online learning format for McGraw-Hill] extremely unuseful. I always forgot to do it, which is really bad because it brought down my Connect grade,” she said, “I think also because it was completion-only, a lot of times I would be doing Spanish at the end of the day and not really feel motivated to do Connect, so I would sort of just click on things randomly… I thought a lot of the questions were repetitive and I didn’t find it to be an interactive experience.”

Ma said she would have preferred taking Spanish under the department’s new format, as long as the online system also has a progressional flow similar to a textbook. She also added that students have succeeded in cutting down the costs of textbooks through borrowing or through Labyrinth’s buy-back policy, but that access codes block these options for students

“Access codes are a way you can’t do that at all, and I think they know this. They want to do something where students can’t buy a cheaper version, ‘We’re just going to make them pay for this.’ And that makes me really sad,” she noted.

Alex Gumbs ’18 has also taken advanced Spanish courses in addition to introductory French courses, for which she had to buy a textbook with access code. She remembers buying her textbooks new, but regrets it because the codes weren’t really necessary.

“They just provide supplemental material and the professor rarely actually assigns anything from the online source,” she said, noting that it would be rare for a student to need supplementary material since classes at the University give plenty of work.

“You’re asking students to make this investment, that essentially has minimal return. There are so many free resources on the Internet that professors can show students as opposed to making them pay these exorbitant prices for the same thing,” Gumbs said, explaining that the price of the codes is unjustified.

She added that the new system the Spanish department is using makes everything more accessible since you don’t have to decide between buying a used book, and then separately buying the code, or buying a new book and paying double the cost. She also added that, when she was shopping an introductory-level German course, they had a similar online format.

Zetterstand noted that there were other reasons behind the program’s decision to stop using the textbook with access code.

“Princeton students are really special, so we wanted to tailor the materials for the students,” Zetterstrand said, adding that the department wanted to create a curriculum that focused on the University’s reality and current events. These topics include discussions on race, immigration, inequality, NAFTA, and other topics that are being discussed on campus and nationwide. She said that her students have also worked with a passage from Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography about how she felt when she was at the University. “It’s authentic, it’s real, and it connects directly with the Princeton student,” Zetterstrand said.

Another advantage to having a website of their own is its flexible nature, Zetterstrand added. Professors can add or take away components of a unit as they please to align with student interests and current events. Students can connect with more interactive materials, such as in the more advanced classes where students can work with real census forms and poll data to sharpen critical thinking and analytical skills.

Méndez Vallejo also noted the convenience of using a University-based platform.

“Anytime you build a platform online, you know there are going to be issues… And it’s really comforting and reassuring to us to know that we have somebody on our campus that we can just send a quick email and say, ‘This button doesn’t work’ and it gets fixed right away,” she said.

Thomas Levin, the departmental representative for the German department, deferred comment to James Rankin, senior lecturer in the German department who is in charge of all foreign language instruction at the University.

Rankin was unavailable for comment.

“When faculty take responsibility for the course material they teach, it’s incredibly impactful for students as learners,” Senack said regarding the Spanish program’s decision.

Since courses are embracing technology in the classroom, Senack noted that there is definitely room for access codes in higher education, “but what publishers are offering, aren’t for student consumers, and we wanted to call that out, plain and simple.”

Matt Busbridge, the executive director of Strategic Marketing for the McGraw-Hill Education publishing company, said that the goal of Connect, their online-learning format, is to help students be more productive when they study.

“Ultimately, what [Connect does] is help students succeed in a way a textbook never could… students who use platforms like these, generally perform significantly better than students who don’t,” he explained.

He noted that while the company sets the prices of their access codes and textbooks, it is up to the instructor on whether or not they should have an access code for their courses, as long as the professor believes that an online platform would help his or her students learn better.

He explained that for all students, the Connect system gives two weeks of complimentary access to its services, known as Courtesy Access.

“The reason why we do that is financial aid often comes later in the semester, so we want to make it easier and more accessible for students on financial aid to get a hold of Connect and be more successful in the course,” he said.

Busbridge added that, as long as the new format is still helping students learn and professors can get feedback on how well their students are learning, it’s a good thing. “Ultimately, the shift to digital, whether it’s through Princeton or ours, it’s a more powerful material for students, and ultimately helps them learn more and get a better grade.”

“There’s plenty of research out there that shows digital material versus textbooks lead to better results for students. And that’s what we’re all about,” he said.