Three-hundred eighty-seven dollars.
This is the number at the bottom of a two-week-old receipt of mine from the Stanford Bookstore. It is what I spent on textbooks this quarter.
This quarter, I rented all of the books that had the renting option available, looked through the Facebook group “Stanford Free and For Sale” for cheaper options before going to the bookstore and made sure to go early enough so that there were still used books to choose from.
Compared to what I spent on course materials in previous quarters, $387 is not much. Sometimes it comes out to more than $500 — when lab coats, goggles, molecule modeling sets and the most current versions of the already-expensive textbooks professors request, add up. This times three means I spend at least $1,000 on textbooks each year — as does, I would imagine, the average student here.
This does not include “class fees,” which are supplemental charges made to a student’s bill when they take a class in physical education ($35), music ($250) and studio art ($50-100), to name a few. It is not uncommon for students to choose classes — or rather, to choose not to take classes — based on how much they will cost. Here comes at least a partial answer to the question: “Why do we see a lack of socio-economic diversity in the arts?” There are financial barriers — both in the cost of textbooks and in the supplemental charges some classes carry — to pursuing music and visual arts here.
Some readers might be quick to write this sum off as a necessary educational expense — something that students just have to deal with and pay for. But this $387 is more than that. Three-hundred eighty-seven dollars is the cost of two round-trip tickets home for me (at least, if they are purchased in advance). It is money I can put toward my emergency savings so that I am prepared in every way that I reasonably can be should an urgent situation arise. Quarter after quarter, it adds up.
This is especially true for students who have to send money back home to support their families — something not uncommon in the low-income community on campus. In addition to managing a full course load, these students balance their schedule with one or more jobs so that they are able to provide for their families. Each dollar matters. Sometimes, students split the cost of a single textbook with a group of friends, passing the book from person to person throughout the day. Other times, they go without their course materials entirely.
The Stanford Bookstore says that students receive a seven percent discount on textbooks. Seven percent. That does not even cover tax.
The Bookstore can make a more concerted effort to make all classes affordable; it can offer a more substantive student discount, for example. Or it can lower its prices across the board. That way, students of all backgrounds do not need to spend another thousand dollars a year affording their Stanford education.
While the various libraries on campus do carry some textbooks, there are often only a handful of copies in circulation; even then, students are not allowed to highlight in them or scribble notes along the margins, as they would be able to do if they had their own copies. They are even discouraged from sticking post-it notes inside of the books.
Student groups have made an effort to address the high cost of textbooks, such as the Leland Scholars Program’s lending library in Sweet Hall and the FLIbrary (a library for first-generation and/or low-income students) hosted by DGen, where students borrow textbooks that have been donated by other students. Moreover, students are not always made aware of the various resources they have when it comes to affording their course materials. This quarter, I learned for the first time that students can apply for funding to help pay for the cost of textbooks by filling out a form on DGen’s website. But is this sustainable on the part of DGen for each low-income student, for each class, for each quarter? The burden of this problem should not lie with the Leland Scholars Program or with DGen — it should be solved at the source.
Additionally, the problem of expensive textbooks is not only limited to students who fall on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum; students who come from middle-class backgrounds face similar problems, having to carefully consider the cost of textbooks and see how it factors into their budget. This affects most, if not all, students.
I am not suggesting that students should not be expected to pay for textbooks at all; I think it is necessary to support the various authors and researchers and publishers who make these resources available to us. However, I think that the cost of textbooks is inflated to a point where it is not reasonable or feasible for students to afford them, and students suffer as a result.
When we applied to Stanford, we did not apply to a specific major or department. We were encouraged to explore them all — to take classes in multiple disciplines, sampling the ones that intrigued us and then study in pursuit of a well-rounded education that makes us “cultured and useful citizens,” as the Stanfords said when they founded the University. The cost of textbooks should not be what holds us back.
Contact Amanda Rizkalla at ‘amariz’ at stanford.edu.