Textbook Transparency

The UC’s recent measure commendably, if imperfectly, tackles a vital issue

In recent years, the College has greatly expanded efforts to admit students from wide-ranging socioeconomic backgrounds, aiming to make a Harvard education affordable for all undergraduates. Though Harvard's financial aid packages are among the most generous in the nation, financial aid itself is not a panacea for all issues of financial inclusion in the classroom. Once on campus, students find that the cost of course materials varies wildly, with Professor N. Gregory Mankiw’s required Economics 10 textbook an especially relevant recent example.

Accordingly, textbooks and other course materials can be prohibitively expensive for some students, and the onus is placed on them to find a way to acquire these materials affordably or choose classes with materials they can afford. This burden on students runs counter to the College’s most fundamental ideals, as we have previously argued.

With these issues in mind, the Undergraduate Council’s recent announcement of a "soft commitment" from administrators to incorporate a question about courses’ affordability into Q guide evaluations will help increase the financial accessibility of courses at Harvard. Adding a question about cost to this tool will allow students to inform their peers about the best ways to purchase course materials for each class in a commonly read and accessible forum.

This development is largely praiseworthy. Ideally, this system will gather positive attention for the College’s most affordable courses and encourage professors who offer unnecessarily expensive courses to find more cost-effective ways to educate their students. Further, by highlighting successful ways to offer equitably-priced classes, the Q guide data could provide models for professors to decrease the cost of their classes.

That said, there is reason for pause at administrators’ “soft commitment” to implementing this Q guide question in the spring. The UC has commendably taken the initiative in proposing this measure to the administration, which must follow through by solidifying its commitment to this question. Its implementation is an important step toward greater financial accessibility at the College.

Still, not all ways of framing this query in the Q guide would be equally beneficial to the student body. The question about course costs should specifically ask students which materials they purchased, where they purchased these materials, and how much they paid, instead of asking students for vague evaluations of the financial strain the course placed on them. The former method would point prospective enrollees toward the best ways to pay for each course, whereas the latter may be useless, given that a sum causing a financial burden for one student may not pose any difficulty for another, and vice versa.

Ultimately, while implementation of the Q guide question would improve the current situation regarding courses’ financial accessibility at the College, it is by no means a perfect solution. Instead, as we have previously opined, a far more comprehensive policy could include the costs of course material costs with student tuition. This way, each student will have the necessary materials for each course, and those on financial aid will face no additional burden. Only through a method such as this can the College best remedy the socioeconomic inequity in course selection that course material costs present.

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