Netflix for textbooks sparks student interest

Cengage has created an online subscription service where students purchase unlimited access to textbooks and course materials at a set price. (Cengage)

Cengage, the largest U.S. provider of course materials, recently unveiled Cengage Unlimited, the first Netflix-style subscription service where students pay one set price for unlimited access to college textbooks.

The online textbook subscription service was developed in order to help ease the burden of purchasing course materials, according to Cengage CEO Michael Hansen. It costs $119.99 a semester or $179.99 a year, and is available online or at participating bookstores. Print rentals for $7.99 with free shipping are also offered through the subscription service.

Cengage CEO, Michael Hansen, opened a live press conference discussing the new online textbook subscription and the stress of textbook costs for students. (Cengage)

“One thing that became very clear was the issue of affordability,” Hansen said. “Not only is tuition an issue, but textbooks and learning materials are a constraint for many, many students.”

Students spent an average of $484 on course materials and $612 on technology and school supplies during the 2017–18 academic year, according to the National Association of College Stores.

“We already pay for tuition and everything else. Adding books on top of that is too much,” said Audrey Ahers, a BYU secondary education major. “I only buy a new textbook if I absolutely have to.”

Eighty-five percent of students said paying for textbooks is the greatest source of financial stress after tuition, according to a nationwide survey by Morning Consult. Results of the survey suggest students drop out of classes or skip meals due to the cost of required textbooks.

BYU mechanical engineering major Ben Lee said he finds ways to avoid paying the full price of a new textbook.

How Cengage Unlimited’s online book selections appear on cellular devices. (Cengage)

“I’ve seen a book for around $220, and I was not going to pay for that,” he said. “Most of my books are used or previous editions of the required text.”

Online services with used and rental book deals — like Chegg or Amazon — often appeal more to students, which has led to an increase in price for textbooks, according to Hansen.

“(Textbook publishers) raised the prices because fewer and fewer students were actually buying the product,” he said. “So the industry raised the pricing to make up for it, and all of the sudden we’re in this downward spiral.”

The pattern led to textbook publishers like Cengage to adapt to the subscription-based demand popular among college students.

“I would definitely be interested in something like that,” said Ahers. “I would just want to make sure they absolutely have the textbooks I’m looking for before I sign up.”

Cengage Unlimited claims to offer unlimited access to more than 20,000 digital course materials, including eBooks, online homework access codes and study guides, according to their website.

Students can also use Cengage Unlimited’s digital savings calculator to decide whether a new subscription will save them money compared to buying course materials on their own.

Hansen said he is confident about the potential of the online subscription service but does not believe it signals the end of print media.

“I think the juxtaposition ‘are we print or digital’ is oversimplified,” he said. “Our pace of  understanding is going to be very different if it’s delivered in one static way, so the underlying power of customization is what we’re after in terms of digital conversion.”

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