Textbook Procurement Issues:

How the Institute Fails Students

For a university that makes it seamless for students to get health insurance and dental insurance, and for a university that ensures there’s an on-campus barber shop and optical center for our convenience, MIT cannot seem to make it nearly as seamless or convenient for us to get the textbooks we need.

Writing as a first-year student, I found the textbook procurement process to be of an amazingly poor design and incredibly inconsiderate of many students’ financial situations. To me, this was a startling contrast with a university full of amazingly intelligent and incredibly kind and considerate people. So what went wrong here?

First, I encountered no official literature on the issue of textbooks before my classes began. By asking upperclassmen, I discovered that students are obliged to check the MIT Coop website to see what textbooks they need before the term begins. It’s confusing to me as to why MIT can’t be the one to provide students with a comprehensive, up-to-date list of every textbook we’ll need for a semester.

MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative is fundamentally based on the principle of freely available, easily accessible course information, but this fantastic ideology is unfortunately ignored when it comes to textbooks. Rather, we’ve got to ask a separate company with its own financial motives for the textbooks we need to get an education at MIT.

And it’s abundantly clear The Coop has its own financial motives. On their handy “Customized Textbook List,” they neglect to provide the single most useful piece of information for finding a book: the ISBN.

This makes it a mission to find the proper book from other sources, like Amazon or Half.com. And the Coop knows everybody hates a mission. That way, people just throw in the towel and buy the books from them — at prices that are, according to the Department of Education, likely to be 25-75 percent higher than they should be. And that’s including the meager 8 percent Coop member rebate. At least it’s a step up from September of 2007, when the Harvard Coop called the police on students writing down ISBNs to find better deals online.

Thankfully, I was one of the lucky ones to hit the APO Book Exchange early and grab most of my textbooks for cheap prices, and it wasn’t too hard to find which ones I needed. APO had great advertising and made it easy to find out when and where I needed to be to get my books — and they accepted TechCash.

Unfortunately, I did have to turn to The Coop for my HASS books and my 18.02 book, which I did manage to get at a slightly more reasonable “used” price. I also had to pick up a small plastic “clicker” for my 8.01 TEAL class. By the looks of it, the thing should cost about $5.00, but the COOP disagreed, and $31.25 for a used unit seemed just right.

Mind you, these things are the most basic in remote response devices and they can be easily used again and again by successive classes of students. It’s inexcusable for MIT to make us buy these. I had the worst feeling of being nickel-and-dimed by the world’s top university, and MIT wasn’t even directly making any money off of me.

To meet the requirements for my 8.01 class, I also had to purchase $45 individual license for “Mastering Physics” online because I had tried to save money buying a used physics textbook from APO. If MIT is going to incorporate online services and remote response devices into the TEAL format, it has to be the one to foot the bill.

I didn’t come to MIT to give my money to Pearson or the Coop. Next year, MIT needs to purchase in bulk Mastering Physics licenses and remote response devices for every student taking a TEAL class. I think the university can afford it.

So why does MIT so utterly fail at financially protecting its students when it works so hard to ensure we’re protected in so many other ways?

Why has MIT championed open information online and neglects to provide up-to-date, accurate textbook information?

Why is MIT beholden to outside companies which make huge profits from the programs MIT enrolls its students in? Isn’t MIT smarter than that?

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology should be the place where we can go and find an awesome, Web 2.0-ish way to organize our textbook list and find the cheapest prices from anywhere on the web. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology should be the place we can go to incorporate technology into the classroom environment without needing to pay extra for it.

Where’s the forward thinking, open minded, independent ingenuity that has made MIT the world’s leader in science and technology? We need to see more of that kind of thought in all realms of MIT life, including textbooks. It needs to start changing now.

Ethan Solomon is a member of the Class of 2012.