Why Your Coursepacks Cost a Ton

By Chris Barton, Editor-in-Chief

Amidst the excitement of coming back to school and the joy of seeing all of our friends again, the first week of school also included a swift punch in the wallet: when we realized that, on top of tuition, fees, books, room and board, the cases we use for class would no longer be supplied as part of the coursepack. Another $300, down the drain.

This sucks. But who is to blame? Did the administration get stingy? Was this a decree handed down from our new overlords in Tempe? Is Harvard trying to gouge even more money out of us?

Seriously, thanks. (Also… please come back). Photo courtesy of Khabar

Well it turns out that this change comes from waaaay up the chain of command – all the way from the US Department of Education in Washington, D.C. And although it’s tempting to blame everything on the current administration (especially the locally infamous Secretary of Education), this change came from the Obama administration, and was put into law way back in 2015.

At issue here is a US Department of Education regulation named § 668.164(c), which, if you’re interested, can be found in this document. At its core is a concern that schools were ripping off their students by forcing them to buy “required” books at an inflated price.

Up until this point, it was fairly common practice for schools to include the cost of the materials either as part of tuition or as a separate “materials fee.” Students would then be told to pick up their materials at the bookstore (or the Xerox center, in our case), without ever getting the opportunity to decide for themselves which materials were worth their money. The DOE was concerned that a teacher could potentially assign an expensive book, buy it on the student’s behalf from the bookstore (when perhaps it would be cheaper on Amazon of Chegg), and charge the student as part of tuition. Never mind if the book cost $200 and you only use it once.

Photo courtesy of Texbook Busters

Rule § 668.164(c) requires that schools give students the opportunity to opt-out of this system and decide for themselves a) whether they even want the materials in question at all, and b) where they want to buy them from. So in theory this works in favor of students, allowing us to shop around for the best price, or decide to just borrow the library’s copy of a particular book instead of buying it.

Thunderbird has always done the purchasing for us. Many of our readings are case studies or articles from business journals and are bought largely through HBR – these are sold on a per-use basis, where every student who uses the case must buy the rights to it individually. Thunderbird has historically coordinated with HBR to buy these on our behalf, buying for example 30 licenses for a class of 30 people. Xerox then printed and bound them for us, and the only thing we had to pay for directly was the paper they were printed on.

Rather than giving students an opt-out, ASU seems to have stopped buying books for people entirely. And that is why, this year, we had to buy our own cases from HBR, resulting in an unexpected $300-ish expense. However, this is not so much a novel expense as an expense that is newly unbundled from tuition. According to the new rule, the school should refund students who opt-out; or in our case our tuition should have decreased slightly this semester since cost of materials is no longer included.

What it must be like working at HBR. Photo courtesy of Not Legal Advice

Whether this happened or not is hard to find out – tuition fluctuates on a semester-by-semester basis for many reasons. Looking at my own financial history, the Thunderbird portion of my tuition seems to have actually increased by about a hundred dollars this semester. I have reached out to the ASU Student Financial Services people, but they don’t know the answer. They have promised to look into it and get back to me if they find out, and I will update this if more information arises.

As for whether the cases are really worth $300, or HBR is guilty of price gouging… Well, just remember that Harvard Business School has the largest business school endowment in the world, at $3.8 Billion.


UPDATE (9/26/2017):

I heard back from ASU financial services, and they requested that I speak with Joe Carter, our very own Associate Director General. So I dropped by Dr. Carter’s in the Herberger building, and heard about the history of coursepacks at Thunderbird.

It turns out that that Thunderbird had never charged students directly for the coursepacks. Rather than sending students the bill (via a ‘Materials Fee’), Thunderbird had simply absorbed the costs into it’s operating expenses. Our school didn’t buy them on our behalf, but rather bought them for us, in much the same way that they buy the books at the IBIC or pay for amenities such as landscaping. It was just a cost of doing business. This practice continued until we were told this past year that we couldn’t do that anymore, for the reasons mentioned above.

ASU charges students specific fees that cover specific costs (i.e. ‘Recreation Fee,’ ‘Student Athletics Fee,’ etc). Thunderbird, however, just charges one big bill that covers all it’s expenses (expect for teacher salaries, which are paid by ASU – this is why our tuition is split into two large chunks). This is the way that we did it while we were still private, and the practice has carried over.

What all this means is that it doesn’t make sense to talk about a ‘refund’ for costs of the courspacks – because we were never charged in the first place. Our school was footing the bill on our behalf. And for that, we owe them a thank you.

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