Two weeks every year, Harvard College undergraduates shop for classes, in search of courses that balance their concentrations and external interests, ensuring they will be challenged but — at least in theory — not dangerously overworked. We’ve all taken classes for different reasons: General Education credit, concentration requirements, random curiosity. But one factor in course selection lurks behind all these other reasons: textbook costs.
While maintaining one of the most generous financial aid programs in the country, Harvard only comprehensively covers the cost of textbooks for incoming freshmen on full financial aid. This coverage, offered under a three-year trial grant — currently in its final year — provides students with $2,000 for textbooks and other expenses, doesn’t do nearly enough to address the problem of textbook costs on campus. For the roughly 95 percent of College students ineligible for these grants, the University offers a few resources to help minimize costs. The Q Guide, Harvard’s course evaluation system, includes a question about course expenditures to warn students off from courses with materials that may be prohibitively expensive. The Financial Aid Office links to a list of tips on its website for reducing the cost of textbooks, which includes searching for free materials on the databases JSTOR and Gutenberg Project or buying and renting used books from the Coop or other students.
These suggestions provide woefully inadequate assistance to students struggling to pay for textbooks. The Financial Aid website’s breakdown of the annual costs of attending Harvard includes a $4,000 estimate of personal expenses that are considered separately from billed costs, like tuition and fees. This category explicitly references an $800-$1,200 estimated annual textbook expenditure. For many students, footing the bill for such a figure is simply infeasible. In effect, the narrow availability of these grants leaves open the possibility that students would choose which courses to take based on textbook costs.
To its credit, the administration has worked diligently to promote inclusivity and reduce the cultural divide between students based on economic status. But the fact that one of the core elements of our College experience, the classes we take, can entrench this divide by putting some courses out of reach for many students is a stain on that admirable record.
The administration should seek to broaden the population that is insulated from concerns with textbook costs by ending the practice of having students pay for textbooks out-of-pocket. Instead of being confronted with reading lists of varying costs for different classes, students should simply receive their textbooks without any financial transaction taking place at the time they select courses for the coming semester.
It’s important to note that textbooks aren’t free, and calling for an end to out-of-pocket textbook purchases is not equivalent to demanding free textbooks. Instead, including textbooks as a factor in billed costs can ensure that these costs are shared equally across the entire student body, regardless of academic interest. To the extent that some concentrations and classes require more costly materials than others, divorcing textbook payment from course selection serves to eliminate financial incentives to take one set of courses over another.
The cost of textbooks is highly variable across the student body, and some students choose not to buy all their books, so we often think of textbooks as peripheral costs that students can cover out-of-pocket. But textbooks should not be considered an external or peripheral aspect of our schooling experience. Each dorm has shelves and drawers in it, and rooming fees are priced to reflect that. Textbooks play a role no less — and arguably more — material in our day-to-day lives as College students than drawers or shelves, and they should be treated as such.
While it is true that Harvard will have no perfect way of determining how many textbooks for each class is required, the College could fill missing textbook orders after enrollment, getting books to students only a week into school, while still saving them from having to factor in textbook costs to course selection. While this is not an ideal arrangement, it isn’t a significant decline from the current system, as the Coop frequently runs out of books and has to reorder them, causing the same kinds of delays.
At the heart of this issue lies a simple truth of relative financial power: For Harvard and for those paying full tuition, the added burden of paying for books collectively is relatively slight. For those without the financial security to pay for books out of their own pockets, the upside of such a policy is immense: The financial freedom to take whatever courses they choose. Harvard has a chance to affirm the dignity of all its students and make them feel as though all classes are accessible for students of all economic backgrounds by restructuring the relationship between tuition and textbooks.
Ari E. Benkler ’21, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Leverett House.