How The Current Bookstore Model Is Holding Your Institution Back

March 2023. The conventional bookstore system is outdated. Here’s how your college can adapt to promote academic success.

Before the e-commerce revolution, students had one reliable option when it came to buying new and used textbooks: the campus bookstore. But now, there’s a plethora of ways to get digital and hard copy course materials, from online book swaps and rental programs to major retail sites like 

In theory, more options are a good thing for cash-strapped students. While the cost of textbooks has started leveling off in recent years, this trend follows decades of staggering price increases. As consumers, students stand to benefit from greater competition.

But the current model for textbooks, which means students scour the Internet for the lowest price or go to the campus bookstore if they prefer, paints an illusory picture of students as empowered individuals. It also hurts institutions—in more ways than one.

Three Drawbacks for Students and Institutions

It’s no secret that the higher ed sector is in trouble. Amidst persistent enrollment and retention challenges, many colleges are struggling to stay afloat. At the same time, higher learning leaders are facing intense pressure from social justice organizations and government leaders to invest in learning equity.

The current bookstore model is preventing higher learning leaders from effectively addressing these issues, and students are losing out too in the process. Here’s how:

1. The oversaturation of options reproduces social inequalities

Proponents of the prevailing system often overlook the significance of information inequality and how social background can impact the choices individuals make, argue researchers from the University of London and Columbia University. 

In their paper entitled “Student Choice in Higher Education—Reducing or Reproducing Social Inequalities?,” they conclude that “...the most fundamental deficiency of the conventional student-choice model is that it equates greater choice with greater social equality. But…this is often not the case.”

When considering the findings from this research, it becomes clear how socioeconomic factors play a role in textbook buying behaviors, such as skipping the purchase entirely. 

This is a concerning trend: according to a recent NACS Student Watch Report, student spending on course materials for 2021-22 was the lowest in 24 years. According to the report, one reason why students were spending less is because many were avoiding buying course materials. Those who skipped buying textbooks were more likely to think about dropping out.

2. Creative alternatives can become time wasters

Scouring the internet for free PDFs, scanning copies of library books, and comparison shopping takes up a lot of time. This can have a significant impact on the student experience. In fact, almost 90% of students who responded to a City University of New York (CUNY) survey said the time they spent researching and purchasing textbooks took them away from other obligations in their lives. 

More time spent sourcing materials also leads to poor student experiences and missed opportunities to start the semester on the right foot: Day One access to course materials promotes academic success, which in turn boosts retention. 

3. Traditional bookstores are not sustainable

Some students might prefer the traditional bookstore, but running a physical retail space and keeping shelves stocked with inventory yields very low profit margins. After overhead and payroll, the profit margin for a typical bookstore is still only between 0 and 4%—even when books are sold for 35% to 40% more than what they cost. 

With labor pressures and inflation, the costs of running an institution have risen dramatically. The flow of federal emergency relief funds that had been artificially bolstering the profit margins for colleges in recent years started drying up in the January 2023 calendar year. 

Higher learning leaders must focus on services that generate higher returns, and traditional bookstores are not meeting this criteria. 

How Universal Learning Promotes Operational Health and Student Success

To solve equity, enrollment, and operational risk challenges, higher learning leaders need to take the wheel. Innovative approaches can help ensure all students have the course materials they need on day one of class while helping the institution maintain its financial health. 

A hybrid ecommerce/in-person bookstore does not go far enough, however, because this multichannel approach can be inefficient. When dealing with budget stresses, the key is to streamline initiatives and offer fewer, better services, and also keep student success front and center. 

One way to achieve this balance is through the use of equitable access models, such as BibliU’s Universal Learning solution. Through this approach, students get course materials in digital format delivered via theinstitution’s LMS. 

This course content provisioning model yields a number of benefits. To start, Universal Learning is offered at a discounted cost that is bundled with tuition, so it helps students who are struggling financially. In fact, the rise of first-day access models was a positive factor contributing to students spending less on course materials, according to the NACS study. 

Universal Learning also helps institutions from a budget perspective: During the January 2023 implementation season for BibliU’s Universal Learning platform, for example, partner institutions experienced 40% savings on average. 

Furthermore, instead of purchasing each textbook and other course materials separately, students acquire all the content on the first day of class. One-stop access means students don’t have to struggle with multiple codes or accounts, or waste time shopping around for a better deal. 

By helping institutions provide all students with day one access at a lower cost, Universal Learning helps institutions address two factors impacting retention: cost of attendance and academic struggles.

Finally, a fully digital model means less physical space needs to be reserved for a brick-and-mortar bookstore. The institution can start getting much-needed cash flow right away by reserving that space for the sale of higher margin items, such as school swag or food items. 

Innovative Institutions Can Thrive During Tough Times

Forward-thinking higher learning leaders have successfully transitioned away from the traditional bookstore and found new ways to support students. With Universal Learning, higher learning leaders can create better financial health for their colleges, while improving educational outcomes for students at the same time.

Discover how your institution can lower textbook costs and boost student grades: Learn more about BibliU Universal Learning.

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