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Old 01-16-2012, 01:21 AM
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What the hell is up with custom textbooks?

A friend of mine is working on a degree at a California university. She's got to watch her pennies, and used book sellers are a great way to save money on textbooks. Unless, that is, the professor uses a "custom" version of the textbook published for that class at that university.

Custom textbooks significantly diminish the market for used textbooks, because the text is significantly less useful to a student at another university, and students like my friend usually can't buy the custom textbook from a seller in another location. They're mostly the same, and often the "customization" is just cutting out the chapters the professor doesn't plan to assign (they don't necessarily renumber the pages when they do this, either), but the student doesn't know this without examining the textbook.

I see why the publishers and the campus bookstores are in favor of killing the used textbook market. What I don't understand is why professors go along with this.
Old 01-16-2012, 02:50 AM
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Professors go along with this because they write text books and want to sell more of them, the same reason the publishers are doing it. I'd do the same thing if I was as unproductive an individual as the average university professor.
Old 01-16-2012, 07:32 AM
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I suspect incentives for other than the authors of the text books. Screw your students for a pittance. Also, the administrators may push it to keep their facility that does write books happy. It can be a dirty little world.
Old 01-16-2012, 08:42 AM
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It's not nearly as sinister as y'all are making it out to be. What follows comes from a discussion that happened in a class I was taking; the professor decided that we needed a bitch session, and this came up.

Most students won't buy the textbook if it's not required, or if there is some indication that the professor will only assign a few chapters from it; either they'll buy the book before the first day of class and return it once the professor goes over the syllabus, or they'll hold off on buying the book at all until they know for sure whether they really need it or not. When sales don't happen, the bookstore (and the professor, if he stands to profit from the book's sales) makes no money at all. This is a big deal for the university itself because the proceeds from the bookstore are often used to fund activities of various sorts.

On the other hand, publishing custom texts means that students are more likely to buy the text, and that results in sales for the bookstore. More sales means more money for the university. So it is money, but not in the way that you think.

That being said, unless part of her funding requires her to buy her books at the bookstore, why isn't your friend shopping around? I've gotten textbooks from Amazon and some of the other used book sites at significant savings; in fact, I can't remember the last time I bought a book through the bookstore. The bookstore may also have these custom textbooks available digitally, where they're dirt cheap relative to the cost of the dead-tree versions. Finally, most professors aren't total assholes when it comes to textbooks; they really do understand that not every student can afford to buy every book on the book list, and they may be able to help, either by lending her a sample copy for the semester or at least letting her copy the relevant chapters. There are ways to beat the system. You just gotta be assertive and creative.

Last edited by MsRobyn; 01-16-2012 at 08:44 AM.
Old 01-16-2012, 09:12 AM
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What MsRobyn said. I've heard about these things, but in my entire university career, I've never once had a professor that was an asshole about textbooks. Most of them avoided textbooks if at all possible. Those that could not avoid them almost always made sure a copy was available on reserve, allowed plenty of discussion on the cheapest place to buy books, and generally just made it easy on people.
Old 01-16-2012, 09:29 AM
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Originally Posted by MsRobyn View Post
It's not nearly as sinister as y'all are making it out to be.
Ok....
Quote:
Most students won't buy the textbook if it's not required, or if there is some indication that the professor will only assign a few chapters from it; either they'll buy the book before the first day of class and return it once the professor goes over the syllabus, or they'll hold off on buying the book at all until they know for sure whether they really need it or not. When sales don't happen, the bookstore (and the professor, if he stands to profit from the book's sales) makes no money at all.

On the other hand, publishing custom texts means that students are more likely to buy the text, and that results in sales for the bookstore. More sales means more money for the university.
I have a feeling we are reading different things into this. I see this as EXACTLY as sinister as everyone is making it out to be. It's actually a "problem" that students don't buy textbooks that are not required for their class? Textbooks are sold, not as a learning supplement, as a reference for the student, but as a way for the school, publishers and professors to earn extra money.

It the same bullshit that industries all over the place use to fuck over their customers. Get you locked in, then nickel and dime you to death with overpriced add ons that you wind up required to have. While I appreciate that it is possible to beat the system, what is infuriating is the existence of the system in the first place.
Old 01-16-2012, 09:46 AM
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I just took a class with a custom text book and I was also pissed about it. What was custom about my book? Not much. It just contained excerpts from another text book. The prof said she assigned that book because it was much cheaper than the original book. That was sort of true. The problem was that I could not sell it back to the university bookstore or to anyone else. Oh, and how much reading was assigned from those books? Zero.
Old 01-16-2012, 12:32 PM
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Originally Posted by even sven View Post
What MsRobyn said. I've heard about these things, but in my entire university career, I've never once had a professor that was an asshole about textbooks. Most of them avoided textbooks if at all possible. Those that could not avoid them almost always made sure a copy was available on reserve, allowed plenty of discussion on the cheapest place to buy books, and generally just made it easy on people.
Literally every single one of my professors in college complained about what a racket the student book store was (I want to say they had a deal with Barnes and Noble or something). They would frequently tell us if other, older editions of the book would be sufficient--- though they were banned by the school from telling us where to buy books besides the book store.

Also, if they were using their own book, they'd all just photocopy the necessary parts and distribute it to us.
Old 01-16-2012, 12:38 PM
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Originally Posted by Cheesesteak View Post
Ok....I have a feeling we are reading different things into this. I see this as EXACTLY as sinister as everyone is making it out to be. It's actually a "problem" that students don't buy textbooks that are not required for their class? Textbooks are sold, not as a learning supplement, as a reference for the student, but as a way for the school, publishers and professors to earn extra money.

It the same bullshit that industries all over the place use to fuck over their customers. Get you locked in, then nickel and dime you to death with overpriced add ons that you wind up required to have. While I appreciate that it is possible to beat the system, what is infuriating is the existence of the system in the first place.
First of all, no one is forcing anyone to buy any of the textbooks at all, and no one is forcing anyone to buy their books at the university bookstore. I agree that textbooks are a racket, which is why I suggested ways to get around it.
Old 01-16-2012, 12:53 PM
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All the professors I've known have thought the textbook industry was kind of a racket, although there were some books worth buying and keeping. And the profit that a professor would make from even a few hundred copies of a textbook that he or she had written is usually pretty small, so it's not much incentive to make students buy the text.

The class I TA for requires that students get custom texts, but they were designed specifically so they'd be cheaper than the original. Many of our students aren't exactly Rockefellers, so the administration had only the chapters students needed bound in cheap paperback. Students sell off their used versions every semester, and professors make sure to tell students that several copies of the original text are on reserve in the library.

Last edited by Scribble; 01-16-2012 at 12:54 PM.
Old 01-16-2012, 12:58 PM
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Originally Posted by MsRobyn View Post
First of all, no one is forcing anyone to buy any of the textbooks at all,
What does this even mean? I'm going to spend tens of thousands of dollars on classes and not bother getting the textbook?


Quote:
I agree that textbooks are a racket,
So, we're entirely in agreement. It's a racket. People have a right to be pissed off that it's a racket, and there's no particular reason to defend the system because it's possible to avoid some of the most egregious problems.

The fact that you can avoid a scam doesn't mean these folks have stopped trying to scam you. All it means is that they're not as successful as they wish they were.
Old 01-16-2012, 01:04 PM
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Unless the prof wrote and edited the book themselves, they don't get much money from textbooks. My friend gets $1,000 at most to write an entire chapter, and no residuals.

There are some profs who write and sell their own books, but when I had them they were happy to pass out copies to their students in their classes.

The open textbook market is starting, and even broke-California is trying to help sponsor some work to make it easier.
Old 01-16-2012, 03:16 PM
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My experiences are over a decade in the past. The only case I knew of a custom textbook was one that was less than half of the original and considerably cheaper. Also lighter. (On more than one occasion I took a book and simply cut out all the parts that I needed for the course punched holes and put them in a binder. Simply so that I wouldn't have to carry the whole thing around.

The textbook business is utterly corrupt. When I took calc, the book cost $5 and a used copy half that and could be resold. It was also under 300 small (probably 5 x 7) pages. Now they come in at 1000 8 1/2 x 11 pages with a price pushing $200. Has there been anything new in elementary calculus since I took it (55 years ago)? No. Of course, these books try to include any application that anyone has thought of. It ought to be the job of the instructor to provide notes for any applications he is interested in. Nowadays there are also free online calc books and if I had to teach calc now, that's what I would use.

About 20 or 25 years ago, I was to teach a course in number theory and had to choose a text. The one I used as an undergraduate was, unfortunately, out of print. A beautiful little book. So I had to find a text. (Students in math courses are very unhappy without an assigned text and a text is a good source of exercises, or I might not have.) I got a list of five and wrote to the publishers asking what their prices were (this of course was pre-web). The results were interesting. Two of the five ignored my letter. One of them wrote back to say that that information was proprietary! Imagine that! The price is a secret. I chose the cheaper of the remaining two. Perfectly satisfactory, but over-priced at $55.
Old 01-16-2012, 03:46 PM
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Hey guys, I work in the textbook industry and figured I'd offer myself up to answer questions.

A few things to start:

First I will say is that there's a big difference between "custom textbooks" that are just re-mixed versions made so they can't be as easily re-sold. (this is a favorite practice of the Majors, i.e. Pearson, when they're not busy bribing officials through their non-profit of course, McGraw, Cengage, etc.) and legit custom texts. Big guys do the "custom" stuff for the same reason there are new editions made seemingly every year of textbooks of topics that basically don't change and certainly don't need an update; to try to pump new sales out.

Remember, especially in an age where non-direct rentals and used books are easily accessible, the companies feel that they have to squeeze the most out of every book. Once that puppy is sold they stand to not profit from it ever again, even if ten students end up using that book (of course, don't think that's not priced into the cost of the book to begin with...).

Two, you're probably aware that even on custom made books where you have no choice most college bookstores charge a mark up (and sometimes a significant one?).

Three, not all custom texts are a scam. There are a number of companies that are content aggregators (XanEdu, Academic Pub, University Readers) that will put together custom textbooks that do seem to actually be cheaper (and sometimes significantly so) than traditional books (and usually come in ebook format even if the original texts don't). That's because they'll generally pull stuff from across content providers (which the Majors won't do. Period. You can only mix and match their own stuff, naturally) so students can actually buy one book instead of four, etc..

Of course students do get still get stuck with the inability to sell back their books and that sucks.

Four, there's also a movement towards "free," open source, etc. content. Flatworld is the most famous of those providers. But, before you scream "yes! free textbooks!" be aware that it's basically a gimmick to get you to buy other shit. The free online ebook reader that lets you read the books for free is (intentionally) crippled and the downloadable ebooks are a completely unreasonable $25, never mind the charges for open source content when you want an actual textbook.

So, that said, fire away, I'll try to answer the best I can...

on edit: one other thing, most of the professors we come in contact with, believe it or not, aren't out to screw the students! You'd be surprised how often professors do care about the price of books. And in how many other cases they feel embarrassed that they assigned something that was so expensive without investigation.

Last edited by LikeATimeBomb; 01-16-2012 at 03:50 PM.
Old 01-16-2012, 03:57 PM
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Originally Posted by Nametag View Post
Custom textbooks significantly diminish the market for used textbooks, because the text is significantly less useful to a student at another university, and students like my friend usually can't buy the custom textbook from a seller in another location. They're mostly the same, and often the "customization" is just cutting out the chapters the professor doesn't plan to assign (they don't necessarily renumber the pages when they do this, either), but the student doesn't know this without examining the textbook.

I see why the publishers and the campus bookstores are in favor of killing the used textbook market. What I don't understand is why professors go along with this.
I've never used a "custom textbook," but I have seen ads for them, and IIRC, they're advertised as being a better deal for the student, because you only pay for the sections of the book you're actually going to use. So instead of the full textbook, with Chapters 1 - 16, half of which you're not going to even look at in a typical semester, you get a shorter book which includes only the chapters you'll actually need. Except that the drawbacks are exactly as the OP noted.
Old 01-16-2012, 04:00 PM
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Originally Posted by Hari Seldon View Post
When I took calc, the book cost $5 and a used copy half that and could be resold. It was also under 300 small (probably 5 x 7) pages. Now they come in at 1000 8 1/2 x 11 pages with a price pushing $200. Has there been anything new in elementary calculus since I took it (55 years ago)? No.
Of course there has: graphing calculators, computers, mathematical software, videos, online resources...

My impression is that a large part of the reason for high textbook prices nowadays is that, if you're publishing a textbook, you pretty much have to also produce all sorts of supplementary materials (videos, software, websites, solution manuals, test banks, etc.) to go along with it, in order for your book to be competitive.
Old 01-16-2012, 04:20 PM
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Originally Posted by Thudlow Boink View Post
Of course there has: graphing calculators, computers, mathematical software, videos, online resources...

My impression is that a large part of the reason for high textbook prices nowadays is that, if you're publishing a textbook, you pretty much have to also produce all sorts of supplementary materials (videos, software, websites, solution manuals, test banks, etc.) to go along with it, in order for your book to be competitive.
Here's the thing, most supplements that you'd actually want to use for many courses are available openly online or have cheaper alternatives than what's fed to you with the textbook.

Within the industry the practice of including CDs, password protected websites, software, videos, etc. is known as "bundling," and the primary reason we do it is because it pushes the price we can charge up in order to stick students with supplements they may not want or need but are required to buy to get the book. (forced bundling, btw, is illegal in texas as a practice and I expect other states will eventually follow).
Old 01-16-2012, 05:09 PM
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What does this even mean? I'm going to spend tens of thousands of dollars on classes and not bother getting the textbook?
Through two undergraduate degrees (biochemistry, mechanical engineering) at two different universities... yup.

You can

- use the books in the library
- borrow off that friend who took the course last semester and keeps absolutely everything
- use an old edition
- use free online references (every university teaches pretty much the same stuff at the undergrad level; most put their course notes online!)
- use a different book entirely on the same topic

Part of going to school and learning stuff is learning how to learn stuff - spending money doesn't really need to be part of that. Having alternate sources of material, or being able to compile a greater understanding of a topic because you pieced it together yourself is a good thing.

I probably bought about a third of the "required" books for both degrees, and probably only bought less than 5 of them as unused, current editions. In the rare event of the teacher handing out specific problems from a specific edition of a specific book...I'd photocopy those questions in the library or scan them from a friend's book.

I realize that this is probably harder to do for literature courses than science ones, but even then, so much is available from legal sources like Project Gutenberg that you could still possibly find the same translation of Les Misérables and save that $14.99 at the bookstore.

Be creative...you are in university, after all. Think about it
Old 01-16-2012, 05:38 PM
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What does this even mean? I'm going to spend tens of thousands of dollars on classes and not bother getting the textbook?
That's exactly right. I'm not prepared to drop upwards of 200 smackers for a book that has outdated or incomplete information as soon as I buy it. I'm not a math or science major, so most of the textbooks that are assigned aren't even useful as references. Unless the professor is going to assign the book for a specific reason, I'm not wasting the money.


Quote:
So, we're entirely in agreement. It's a racket. People have a right to be pissed off that it's a racket, and there's no particular reason to defend the system because it's possible to avoid some of the most egregious problems.

The fact that you can avoid a scam doesn't mean these folks have stopped trying to scam you. All it means is that they're not as successful as they wish they were.
One of the ways to express one's displeasure with the current system is to boycott. Until bookstores and publishers figure out that very few people are willing to spend that kind of money on textbooks, we'll keep the current system.
Old 01-16-2012, 05:40 PM
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Professors go along with this because they write text books and want to sell more of them, the same reason the publishers are doing it. I'd do the same thing if I was as unproductive an individual as the average university professor.
Professors get nothing for most custom textbooks. We just work with the publisher to choose specific content, often from a database. I use a custom book each semester, so our bookstore buys them used. They tend to be cheaper anyway, since I choose only the content I need.

At my (state) school, we cannot profit from textbooks.
Old 01-17-2012, 12:55 PM
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And Apple is about to announce an even easier way to make custom e-texbooks:

http://wired.com/epicenter/2012/...troy-textbook/
Old 01-18-2012, 12:05 PM
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Professors get nothing for most custom textbooks. We just work with the publisher to choose specific content, often from a database. I use a custom book each semester, so our bookstore buys them used. They tend to be cheaper anyway, since I choose only the content I need.
This.
We have lots of online classes that use only eBooks.
Let's say the hard copy book costs $200 for the full 20 chapters.
Our classes are shorter and we only cover 10 of the chapters, but not in order - for instance Chapter 2 first week, Chapter 5 second week, etc.
By "editing" the book, the student gets exactly 10 chapters, all ten chapters are used, in order, for the entire term.
The student pays about $50 to "use" the book for just the term (and then access disappears), or can elect to buy the book to download for eternity (to keep it) for $100.
So, if a student thinks they will never use the book again, they only pay a small percentage (probably what they would lose as an used book sale anyway) or they can pay about 50% for the entire book that they actually covered in class.
We do allow a student to buy the entire book hard cover, if they wish.

The other advantage of custom/eBooks is that publishers can update them faster. This is especially important with some books - for example, Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator comes out with new versions on a regular basis. It used to be a pain in the ass to just barely get the new CS3 textbook in, only to have CS4 software on sale two weeks later. Now they can make the minor changes to cover updates and you have a new textbook that covers all the updates in a mater of weeks instead of months.

Yes, school books are expensive, but at least students are now getting content they use in class, updated to the newest standpoint and have the option to "rent" during the class or pay extra and buy to keep. BTW, these new books are in a pdf format that allows them to be read to you - great news for the visually impaired and those to lazy to actually read and want to have the books read to them! Granted, the voice sounds like Darth Vader on Valium but still - having your textbook read to you is not a horrible option to have as an "extra".

And lastly, you can also highlight, make notes, or click to external links using these books on any computer/laptop/notepad.
Old 01-18-2012, 04:31 PM
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See, this is something I don't get. When I was in University, I was in a math honours program. While I almost always had to buy (beg, borrow or steal) a textbook for my non-math courses every required math class except three (and I took thirty) had course notes instead of a textbook. Course notes were an agreed upon set of content for the given course (agreed by the instructors who were teaching the course) that was editted every semester.

So, every part of the course notes was used in the class. And it was nearly exactly how your prof would be teaching it and how it would be on the exam.

The best part was that they were only 10-20 dollars each. Printed by the kinkos beside the school.

The strange thing is that by the time I graduated, all the first and second year students had been moved to textbooks. They used to beg to borrow our course notes from years past since that's how they were still teaching the courses. Guess they were getting too lazy to edit them? Maybe kickbacks from the publishing companies?
Old 01-18-2012, 04:36 PM
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What MsRobyn said. I've heard about these things, but in my entire university career, I've never once had a professor that was an asshole about textbooks. Most of them avoided textbooks if at all possible. Those that could not avoid them almost always made sure a copy was available on reserve, allowed plenty of discussion on the cheapest place to buy books, and generally just made it easy on people.
We are actually required to publish the ISBN numbers on our college's website, specifically so students can shop around to find the best deal.

Sometimes faculty try their best and make honest mistakes. I used to order the softcover version of a book assuming it was cheaper. I didn't see the invoices that the bookstore received. The bookstore manager gave me the head's up that the hardcover was cheaper! So we switched the order in time for the semester.

One problem is that many of us would like to make books "not required" or offer a variety of books for a class. However Federal financial aid won't pay for a text that is not required, so it puts us in a tough spot.
Old 01-18-2012, 08:17 PM
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One problem is that many of us would like to make books "not required" or offer a variety of books for a class. However Federal financial aid won't pay for a text that is not required, so it puts us in a tough spot.
I don't understand this. I went through college getting federal financial aid and never heard of book prices having any effect on it. Each school figures a "cost of attendance" which includes books, yes, but that's for the whole school, not individual students. Financial aid never had a clue what books I bought or needed.
Old 01-18-2012, 08:47 PM
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Professors go along with this because they write text books and want to sell more of them, the same reason the publishers are doing it. I'd do the same thing if I was as unproductive an individual as the average university professor.
The idea that most, or even many, professors make money from textbooks is one of the most hilarious things i've read in a while.

While there are some textbook authors out there who make quite a decent living from their books, the vast majority of professors don't write textbooks at all. About 99.9% percent of the professors who assign any given book to their class are NOT the author of that book, so they have no personal financial incentive to require it in their classes. To claim that professors assign their books out of pecuniary interest is completely stupid in almost all cases.
Old 01-18-2012, 08:55 PM
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I don't understand this. I went through college getting federal financial aid and never heard of book prices having any effect on it. Each school figures a "cost of attendance" which includes books, yes, but that's for the whole school, not individual students. Financial aid never had a clue what books I bought or needed.
At least in my experience, when I submit my book orders I indicate if a book is required or optional, so the students know. I might have a text as required and a problem workbook as optional. Certain fnancial aid (Pell gants, maybe) deposits X amount for textbooks with our bookstore. That money can only be used for required, not optional, texts.

Student loans and other types of benefits most likely work differently.
Old 01-18-2012, 09:08 PM
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At least in my experience, when I submit my book orders I indicate if a book is required or optional, so the students know. I might have a text as required and a problem workbook as optional. Certain fnancial aid (Pell gants, maybe) deposits X amount for textbooks with our bookstore. That money can only be used for required, not optional, texts.

Student loans and other types of benefits most likely work differently.
I got Pell grants, and I got refunds of the excess amount. It sounds like the school where you teach just deposits grant money for required texts at the bookstore, but that it wouldn't affect the total amount of financial aid given, because the student would just get any extra in the form of a refund. I don't think you have to worry about making books optional.

I do wonder why the school would do it that way, since so many students don't want to waste money by buying their books at the bookstore (well, I understand WHY, obviously they're encouraging them to buy them there, but I don't think it's right).
Old 01-18-2012, 09:28 PM
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I got Pell grants, and I got refunds of the excess amount. It sounds like the school where you teach just deposits grant money for required texts at the bookstore, but that it wouldn't affect the total amount of financial aid given, because the student would just get any extra in the form of a refund. I don't think you have to worry about making books optional.

I do wonder why the school would do it that way, since so many students don't want to waste money by buying their books at the bookstore (well, I understand WHY, obviously they're encouraging them to buy them there, but I don't think it's right).
It's a state school, part of a large state system, so there maybe state issues that are involved. I do know that in my college, currently, there are issues with some financial aid and textbooks. However, the point remains that other factors can influence textbook choices. That was my only point.
Old 01-18-2012, 09:39 PM
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Just as an example, here is a policy from another state, but is similar to ours:


"understand that you were awarded financial aid to cover the costs of your attendance at Virginia Western Community College. As a result, you may only charge to your account, those books and supplies that are required for classes in which you are enrolled. You further understand that you may not charge to financial aid multiple copies of the same textbook during the enrollment term."

This is most likely a case of state to state variation or changes over time.
Old 01-18-2012, 09:53 PM
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Just as an example, here is a policy from another state, but is similar to ours:


"understand that you were awarded financial aid to cover the costs of your attendance at Virginia Western Community College. As a result, you may only charge to your account, those books and supplies that are required for classes in which you are enrolled. You further understand that you may not charge to financial aid multiple copies of the same textbook during the enrollment term."

This is most likely a case of state to state variation or changes over time.
But you are always entitled to a refund of any excess Pell grant amount. I know some financial aid things vary by state, but I don't see how that possibly could. (Also I just graduated 2 years ago, so my experience is recent.)

Oh, you know what I bet it is? I bet it's that you can charge required books to your account before you're able to get the refund, since there can be a waiting period for that. So I guess it's true that it could affect a student to a point, depending how long the waiting period is (IME it's usually just a few days after the term starts, but there can be exceptions), but at least it won't affect their total amount of financial aid. They can still buy optional books with their refund when they get it.

But I understand your point about there being other factors.
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