To Save Its Campus Bookstore, This University Took It Online

To Save Its Campus Bookstore, This University Took It Online

We know that college students’ tastes for digital services have the power to make companies aware. A recent example is publishing giant Pearson’s dive into the world of textbook subscriptions in hopes of making itself more appealing to students shopping around for the best deals.

But what about the bookstores on campus, which are often more closely linked to colleges? How do they compete in an era where students are completely content to order what they need online?

At the University of Alaska Anchorage, the answer was to embrace the changing times. Now its bookstore is a place where you can find hoodies, snacks and for the faculty to get some technical support. But there is a remarkable absence of one thing – textbooks.

The university switched two years ago to a fully virtual bookstore, where faculty can send their required reading and students can place their orders (or continue shopping around). It’s a change, as David Weaver, CEO of Campus Services for the university, says, the financial problems caused by the fluctuating bookstore while keeping affordable textbook opportunities open to its students.

“Historically, we had a nice beautiful brick and mortar bookstore,” Weaver says, with a place for community lectures and a small Apple store. “The sense of place was great for people my age, where it was part of my bachelor and master’s experience. As time went on, the bookstore got closer and closer to just balancing. ”

The new model, operated by the online bookstore platform Akademos, allows students to view a class’ textbook award before signing up for a class. The service can distribute open educational resources, or OER, textbooks that are available to professors and students for free. It is also integrated into the university’s payment system, allowing users to charge books to their student account.

“If we are not the cheapest option for the student, affordable price trumps our ability to monetize textbook sales,” Weaver says. “If I have a choice between three sections of a course and one has OER and one has a $ 200 or $ 300 textbook, I want to know because it’s a factor in my choice.”

Niraj Kaji, CEO of the Academy, predicts that more universities will follow the example of Weaver and his institution. Campus bookstores are experiencing what he calls the “Tower Records effect,” where e-commerce has rendered a physical storefront ineffective. Just as streaming and digital sales led to a decline in stores selling CDs, digital course material has affected bookstores.

“About five to 10 years ago, students started voting with their wallets and decided they wanted to buy their book material online,” says Kaji, which has led to declining bookstore sales.

Kaji says that five years ago, about 8 percent of the course materials were digital. Now that number has risen to 40 percent, and he sees it only growing from there.

The Alaska Campus’ online bookstore has freed the university from the complicated exercise of guessing how many physical copies of each book it should have in stock. Getting pallets of books shipped to Alaska is no easy task, and Weaver says the university had a hard time keeping up with the rental of textbooks offered by companies like Chegg, which expanded their market position. The campus bookstore had a million deficit in 2019, he adds, and was looking for a solution.

At the same time, Weaver says university officials were thinking about the burden of textbook costs for students. Take, for example, he says, a student who borrows $ 1,000 a year in loans to cover course materials. Then multiply it by the four or five years it will take to complete a bachelor’s degree.

“If she comes from a more humble working class or working poor household like many University of Alaska Anchorage students have, $ 4,000 to $ 5,000 in textbooks could have turned into $ 10,000,” Weaver says. “Affordability and transparency, those things trump everything else. That’s what our students want.”

It supports the university’s data. A survey released to students this fall shows that 89 percent of respondents said they were moderate or very satisfied with the platform. This semester, 40 percent of students purchased their books through the online store, while the remaining 60 percent reported that they had purchased elsewhere, been assigned OER materials, or had no required textbook. As for the bookstore, it now functions as a regular campus store, and its smaller footprint has made way for a center for student enrollment.

In addition to affordability, Kaji says the shift to digital course materials can help universities intervene and support their students in a way that traditional textbooks cannot. What if digital textbooks could warn a professor or advisor that a student has not opened their textbook yet, or even find out where they were struggling?

“If someone has not had access to the material for seven days, it may be a yellow flag indicator to ask, ‘Is everything OK?'” Kaji says. “It has to be done with great care with privacy, but when we think about the whole area of ​​course content, we see those trends. There is an opportunity for better data capture to help the university. ”


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