C-CAP: Wallets Without Brains

The Course-Cost Assistance Program (C-CAP) intends to provide a book stipend to financially disadvantaged students. The Undergraduate Council and Students Taking on Poverty Campaign began its crusade last spring, and their recent online petition may finally give the idea some widespread momentum.

Textbooks are the secret thorn in the side of low-income Harvard students. They are otherwise supported remarkably well by financial aid: the Financial Aid Initiative covers full tuition, room, and board for all students with family incomes under $60,000; Harvard provides lower-income freshmen from warm climates $200 for winter clothing; the Student Events Fund guarantees lower-income students free tickets to campus events. But, other than student loans, Harvard provides no assistance for purchasing books. Somehow, the micro-managing institution that can give me free tickets to a foam party is unwilling to help me buy an economics textbook.

C-CAP hopes to plug this financial aid gap by doling out $125 to students with family incomes under $40,000 and $75 to those between $40,000 and $60,000. C-CAP’s heart is undoubtedly in the right place, but I am worried about its head.

Unfortunately, C-CAP misunderstands the Harvard textbook market. The COOP has a local monopoly on Harvard textbook purchases, and lower-income students are perhaps the only group to spend significant book money outside the COOP. The COOP’s financial burden is greatest for those who buy books while pressured by time and stress—shopping online and catching up on the first week’s reading after their books arrive in the mail during weeks two or three. If lower-income students are suddenly given a bit of cash to buy books, trading sanity for savings doesn’t seem like such an attractive idea anymore.

Assume the average student spends $1000 a year on books at the COOP. Excluding coursepacks and books needed immediately, shopping online probably could be used, at most, for three-fourths of the student’s purchases: $750 worth. Shopping online could save the student as much as a third off the COOP price, so the student saves $250. If C-CAP provides this same student with $250, it squashes much of the incentive for shopping outside of the COOP.


The COOP, of course, would then raise prices. It would not be a gross outrage of a price increase; it is a business, not an evil empire. Using the low estimation of a student’s annual textbook cost, the COOP already makes six million dollars a year off the College. When the better part of C-CAP’s proposed $200,000 in handouts reach COOP registers, the price increase will be slight—two percent, maybe even five percent—but an increase in its bottom line nonetheless.

In the end, C-CAP would save some of its beneficiaries a little time and money, though not the full value amount printed on their checks. It would cost everyone else a little extra, both at the COOP counter and on the termbill increase that will pay for the C-CAP program. And it would make the COOP’s profits a little fatter. Or, the COOP would argue, make the COOP’s annual rebate recipients a little richer—but forgive me if I am not thrilled about getting 7 percent of my money back a year after I wasted it on books at least 7 percent too expensive.

The question here is not whether this income redistribution is fair, but whether it really is the best idea we have. We could, for instance, have a section in every course website that displays every required book’s ISBN, two weeks before classes start. Computer Services could have even those ISBNs link directly to any of the innumerable cross-searches for textbooks online. All readings the first two weeks of class could be photocopied, available on the course website, or be on reserve in a ratio of one book for every 30 students in the class. Given the time to shop, every student could probably save at least 20 percent of his book budget buying online.

Having all coursepacks available online would also be a tremendous step but certainly not an easy one. We could start by just not including material that is already available online. Too many coursepacks include copies of Kennedy’s speeches and "A Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Likewise with books: By all means, put the Federalist Papers on the reading list, but also link to them online where they are available in their entirety. And faculty members should stop requiring the newest edition of a book, and instead just recommend which of the editions are suitable. Introductory statistics has not changed significantly since 2002.

Implementing these measures could save every student at least 30 percent of a $1,000 budget, and would total well below C-CAP’s $200,000 pricetag. Textbook costs are in need of attention, but if anyone actually cares about the issues of lower-income students, show it by spending a little time thinking rather than giving other people checks to sign. I can beg for handouts myself, thank you.

Jason D. Misium ’08 is a biology and mind, brain, and behavior concentrator in Quincy House.