University President Drew G. Faust has taken an important step in addressing financial accessibility in her recent announcement to raise the issue of rising textbook costs at an upcoming faculty meeting in March. We commend Faust on her decision to address an issue that, for many students, can greatly influence their education at the College. However, the dialogue on economic barriers to taking courses cannot stop at the faculty meeting. Administrators and faculty alike must continue the conversation about the challenges that textbooks and other course materials pose to financially disadvantaged students, and support any new developments put forward.
For many students, textbooks represent an insurmountable challenge limiting freedom in educational choice. In recent years, students have admitted to making decisions on classes on the basis of whether or not they can afford required textbooks, and making trade-offs between purchasing a textbook or buying other, needed items.
Both administrators and faculty must work to increase textbook access for all Harvard students and alleviate this economic barrier. On the administrative end, the College should adopt a more holistic role in helping financially disadvantaged students afford course materials. We commend the College’s financial aid packages that empower many students, giving them the right to pursue their education, and placing Harvard at the forefront of accessibility among its peer institutions. Nevertheless, given the generosity of Harvard’s financial aid, accompanied by the magnanimous claim that “financial circumstances...will not keep you from Harvard,” it is illogical that textbook prices should stand in the way of students’ course selections.
We have previously opined on the need for a more comprehensive, all-encompassing financial aid program that could factor in the cost of textbooks and other course materials into the cost of tuition. Currently, such costs are included under the category of personal expenses, and are not covered by financial aid, but rather by student contributions, which are often made up by students through term-time work. It is counterintuitive that Harvard expects students to work to pay for their textbooks: the more students work to pay for them, the less time they have to dedicate to putting said books to use.
Furthermore, professors should collaborate with the Harvard Library to increase accessibility to required textbooks in all courses, through making more copies of textbooks available on reserve at Lamont and other libraries and making them accessible online. Additionally, the existing three hour time frame allotted for reserve checkouts is often limiting for students, as many courses assign reading requiring longer than three hours. An extension of the three hour reserve time could provide another way students who may not have the financial freedom to purchase a textbook can use course materials through the Harvard Library with greater benefit. A combination of making more textbooks available on reserve for all classes, in addition to potentially extending the amount of time such books could be taken out, could prove useful aides for lower income students.
Harvard is an expensive institution, both inside and out, and Harvard administrators and faculty must take greater responsibility in ensuring that all students can achieve the education for which they came here. While we applaud the developments made thus far, we hope further steps are made so that Harvard students can spend their time at the College to the fullest.
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