Letter to the Editor: From the Textbook Taskforce

Professor of Psychology Catherine Sanderson, Professor of Spanish Sara J. Brenneis, and Associate Professor of Physics David Hanneke shed light on the new textbook program’s steps towards educational equity, amid discussions of how it may hurt sales at Amherst Books.

Amherst College prides itself — and rightly so — on its considerable efforts to create a diverse, equitable, and inclusive student body. We admit students without regard to their ability to pay; we provide generous and need-blind financial aid, including to international students; and we extend ample support for summer research experiences. These policies are designed to recruit students from diverse backgrounds and help them succeed once they’ve enrolled.

Yet we three faculty members serving on the Textbook Taskforce have heard again and again from students that their ability to fully access the curriculum is in fact limited by their family’s financial resources. Numerous students reported avoiding classes that required expensive textbooks or course materials, including introductory courses in sciences and foreign languages. In some cases, these choices eliminated students’ ability to major in a particular field or to study abroad. Other students reported taking classes with required materials, but choosing not to purchase those materials, buying an outdated edition or relying on reserve materials instead; in some cases this led students to feel less prepared for exams or less able to actively participate in small seminar classes.

Concerns about such inequity have led a few departments to cover the cost of required course materials in introductory courses for students on financial aid out of the department budget. Here is an email received from a student who saw this notation on a syllabus:

“I added your Intro Psych class to my preferred courses list and just looked at the syllabus. … I just had to thank you and the department as a whole for covering the cost of the online textbook. As a FLI student at Amherst, I've dropped three courses because I can't justify (or afford) to spend upwards of 200 dollars on an online code, and I'm only a Sophomore. I wanted to let you know that seeing that it was covered on the syllabus almost made me cry at the effort you and the Department have made to include FLI students.”

But this approach does not solve the problem, given that it addresses a small number of courses in a small number of departments (nor could this system sustainably expand, as it isn’t financially feasible for each department to pay for such costs for all courses). A new program, starting in the fall of 2024, will provide all required course materials — in the same edition and format — to all students at the start of the semester, and thereby ensure that the cost of course materials is never a barrier to taking a class. By building course material costs into the comprehensive fee and purchasing the materials in bulk, we are able to negotiate a substantial discount from what students would otherwise have to pay.

Several articles in The Student over the last few weeks have emphasized various criticisms of this new program, including the timeline for faculty members to select course materials (a timeline that is still very much in flux) and potentially decreasing some sales at Amherst Books. These negative stories have unfortunately overshadowed the real and substantial benefits of this program for both faculty and students. Faculty members will now be able to select the course materials that best fit the pedagogical goals of their class and to feel confident that all students have full access to the same high-quality materials. Students will now be able to select courses — and pursue majors — without weighing the potential financial costs of these choices. These benefits are clearly what has led peer institutions — including Williams, Swarthmore, Morehouse, and Middlebury — to offer similar programs.

As faculty members, we’re proud to be joining other institutions in taking this step towards creating a more inclusive and equitable experience for our students. As noted by a current sophomore who learned of this program and emailed a member of our committee, “on behalf of the FLI community, I want to thank you for all of the hard work that you are putting into this committee. … I think it will benefit everyone, and that the Amherst community will be on a path to even more equity.” We could not agree more.

Sara J. Brenneis
Professor of Spanish

David Hanneke
Associate Professor of Physics

Catherine A. Sanderson
Poler Family Professor of Psychology