“There doesn’t seem to be any way around it,” McGrath told me. McGrath, whose mother is a friend of mine, reached out last fall to tell me his story after learning that I was working on a story about textbook costs. My son, who also attends Rutgers, had to purchase access codes for two fall classes as well.
But Rutgers, a public research university in New Jersey, is far from the only higher-education institution where these codes are growing in popularity. Roughly 60 percent of students used an access code during the 2016-17 academic year, according to the National Association of College Stores (NACS), most of them underclassmen at four-year institutions or community-college students taking introductory classes.
Publishers and some professors tout the advantages of these new digital assessment tools, pointing to their ability to streamline the academic experience by making it more efficient and customized. The fact that they’re becoming omnipresent on some campuses speaks to instructors’ enthusiasm for them. But as demonstrated in a new report by Student PIRGs, a collection of college student-run advocacy groups that works alongside U.S. Public Interest Research Groups, students are starting to question their merits: The access codes threaten to exacerbate the already-high cost of college materials, undermining the used-book market and reshaping the college experience. As McGrath put it, now “you have to pay to do homework.”
Greg Mankiw’s class, “Economics 10a: Principles of Economics” is Harvard’s most popular course among undergraduates, attracting 633 students this past fall. As is the case in many introductory classes, students attend a combination of large lectures and smaller sections led by graduate assistants and visiting faculty. Mankiw, who himself only gives a handful of lectures per semester, assigns readings from a loose-leaf version of his own extremely lucrative textbook, Principles of Economics, donating royalties from books purchased by Harvard students to charity.
In 2016, he started requiring students to purchase both the textbook and a code that gives them access to a digital platform known as MindTap. There, students complete their homework assignments and take exams, which are graded automatically on the publisher’s website. Students pay about $130 per year for the book and code, a discounted cost Mankiw negotiated with publishers for those at Harvard.
Mankiw feels that students and faculty have benefitted from the new technology, which includes videos and mini-lectures. Students now get immediate feedback on their work, when the information is still fresh in their minds, rather two weeks later, he told me. The teaching assistants no longer have piles of problem sets on their desks to grade, he said, which frees up their time for office hours and face-to-face meetings with students. This new approach to textbook publishing, Mankiw said, is “disruptive change.”