Netflix, but for textbooks: US company helps college students buy course materials
For a fraction of the price of regular textbooks, the Cengage Unlimited subscription lets students access their university textbooks on all their digital devides. Source: Bruce Mars/Unsplash

How does the idea of spending less than a third of your university books and course materials would normally cost sound to you?

A year ago, that would likely sound like an impossible dream for the hordes of university students struggling to even buy basic necessities like food. A Wisconsin Hope Lab study has found that more than one-third (36 percent) of university students are affected by food insecurity, having limited or uncertain access to nutritious and safe foods.

Constantly worried about whether they’ll be able to afford their next meal, these students naturally feel stressed about how they’re going to fund other basic needs. This hits particularly hard when it comes to purchasing textbooks, which a new survey by Morning Consult found to cost a whopping US$579 annually.

No wonder then, that 85 percent of current and former students say that their textbook and course material expenses are financially stressful.

Take heed then, college students, for there’s now a new subscription service for you to access more than 20,000 digital course materials, including eBooks, online homework and study guides, at just US$119.99 a semester or US$179.99 a year.

Michael Hansen, CEO of Cengage, the US-based education and technology company providing the subscription, said: “For too long, our industry has contributed to the lack of affordable access to higher learning.  Despite years of student and faculty complaints, the industry continued to push an outdated, traditional business model that didn’t put students first.”

“At Cengage, those days are over…As a student-focused company, we have very deliberately embarked on a path to replace the industry’s century-old business model and offer students unlimited access to quality learning at an affordable price. We believe Cengage Unlimited will smash barriers to access for students by using the simple approach they already embrace in their daily lives, including movies, music and even health care.”

Hansen isn’t being dramatic when he speaks about the dire lack of affordable textbooks in the market, which can cost as much as US$200 a book.

CNBC reported a study by the Government Accountability Office which found that the price of college textbooks rose 82 percent between 2002 and 2013. To give that some perspective, that’s actually three times the rate of inflation.

While students can bag second-hand copies from their seniors or through sites like eBay and Craigslist, they may not be the latest versions. This can put off students as they have to be extra vigilant in spotting which materials are outdated and which aren’t.

“Traditionally, when people think about materials for classes, they think of physical textbooks. But all of the materials that a student needs to participate in a class are increasingly put behind a paywall that you get to through a unique log-in that will expire at the end of the semester,” said Kaitlyn Vitez, higher education advocate for US Public Interest Research Group.

“Students might have been able to resell the textbook in the past, but because the access code expires, it renders the textbook worthless.”

Now you can read university textbooks on your Kindle. Source: Bady qb/Unsplash

University libraries will carry the textbooks and materials needed as well, but their numbers are limited and not everything on your class reading list will be available in digital journals.

We’ve yet to see how useful Cengage Unlimited’s digital products across 70 subjects and 675 courses will be to university students, but its existence is certainly a welcome addition to the university book sales landscape.

Think of it as a Netflix or Hulu for textbooks, says Dr Will Austin, President of Warren County Community College (NJ).

“For a flat fee, students get every educational product created by the largest academic publisher in the United States, all at their fingertips, on their tablets, computer, or smartphone instantly.”

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