Attack of the Wallet Killers

Students cannot afford exorbitantly-priced coursepacks

Students battling the ever-increasing financial burden that is a Harvard education have found a new adversary this term: the $500 coursepack. While that sets in, it must be emphasized that this is not some premise for a Harvard-themed Twilight Zone episode or a cheesy horror movie à la Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. The $464.50 compendium of readings and articles for Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy Robert Putnam’s Government 90qa, Community in America class is very real and currently available on the shelves of the Harvard Coop bookstore.

Most disturbingly, the problem of overpriced coursepacks is widespread. Harvard’s Digital Printing Services lists nine classes with offerings of more than $100 each, while at least a half dozen other packs from the Coop exceed this threshold as well; the readings price tag for Women Gender and Sexuality 1003, Theories of Sexuality, for example, is more than $300. Professors need to do a better job of factoring in coursepack costs when they select readings for their courses. Otherwise, students are faced with the unattractive dilemma of skipping expensive but worthwhile classes, or illegally reproducing coursepacks in defiance of copyright law. Neither is acceptable.

Amazingly, simple ignorance on the part of professors can be blamed for some of the prices. Many simply submit lists of readings to the Coop or Digital Print Services, which, in turn, deal with acquiring the appropriate copyrights, and pay little regard to the bill to be passed on to students. According to an undergraduate this semester, one professor claimed to be “shocked” and surprised by the high price of a coursepack in response to a complaint about the matter. But this reaction occurred after the term had already started when nothing could be done.

Such ignorance should not be an excuse at a university that prides itself in meeting the full demonstrated financial need of each student. The Financial Aid Office does not generally factor in differences in course material costs when it determines its grant packages, and instead relies on standard estimates. Thus, professors who assemble coursepacks outside of the normal price range could very well be placing undue burdens on some students, or even negatively affecting their class selection.

Because of this, some have taken the problem into their own hands by reproducing coursepacks at local copy shops without regard for copyright law. According to student accounts, in one course an undergraduate photocopied a coursepack on reserve at Lamont library for every other member of the class, and not a single one was sold through the usual copyright-abiding means. In another account, Coop employees openly suggested that undergraduates illegally reproduce the Government 90qa coursepack to avo mid its nearly $500 cost.

Eschewing copyrights, however, is not the appropriate way to reduce expenses. Our readings do not generally come from millionaire bestselling authors, but from academics who work very hard and often receive very little compensation. We should not shortchange a profession that many among our student body will likely join in the future.

Instead professors need to exercise care when assembling coursepacks. Cost cannot be neglected, especially since so much academic material is available at no cost to all Harvard students online through resources such as JSTOR and Lexis-Nexis. The possibility that a course absolutely must offer large numbers of expensive readings that cannot be found (or substituted for) elsewhere seems remote.

Another obvious solution is to reduce the volume of reading. It is unreasonable to expect undergraduates to give appropriate care to coursepacks such as that for Government 90qa and Women Gender and Sexuality 1003, which span multiple volumes and thousands of pages. And practical experience also suggests that students simply will not read it all. Thus, making them pay for it is silly.

Whether coursepack costs become manageable is in the hands of professors. We can only shudder at the possibility of being asked to shell out a thousand dollars for a five thousand page monstrosity some day, and the armies of petty copyright thieves such an action will create.