In a 2016 Wakefield Research poll of college students, a full 72 percent of those surveyed admitted they’ve waited until after a class started to purchase the course materials; over a quarter of the students have skipped buying them entirely.

A broken model

“We finally have software that’s adapting to the individual.”

Jenny Billings, Ed.D., the chair of curriculum and developmental English and study skills at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, notes that the prohibitive cost of educational materials can have an even more direct impact on a student’s degree trajectory. “Our students were literally having to choose between courses based on the affordability of the materials themselves. They were having to put off courses or even completely forgo courses.”

Today, the average college student spends $500 a year on textbooks and digital learning materials, and that number reflects students’ efforts to reduce those costs by opting to rent, share materials or buy used; all-new materials can run a student closer to $1,200. Michael Hansen, the CEO of Cengage, an education and technology company, reflects, “We as an industry were competing with students’ basic needs. Whether they buy diapers for their kids, or whether they buy the educational materials they need to succeed.”

Recently, Hansen’s organization announced the August 2018 launch of Cengage Unlimited, a subscription service that gives students complete access to all of the company’s digital products —  22,000 products for a flat rate  of $119.99 a semester or $179.99 for a year. Students using the digital platforms also have the option of a free print rental, paying only a $7.99 shipping fee.

A new age of learning

This service marks the next chapter of a larger shift towards digital learning tools in higher education. “I think I’ve done homework on paper in less than five classes,” shares Bilal Shalash, a student ambassador for Cengage and rising senior at the University of Kentucky. “I have yet to borrow a book from the library, but I’ve gone in there to use their online resources.”

Billings points out that this trend meets a generation of digital natives where they live. “We knew going digital would put [students’] textbooks and materials in their pockets,” she says. “The materials are now available on their phones and laptops and tablets. We finally have software that’s adapting to the individual.”

But moving textbooks and coursework online didn’t deter rising costs. In fact, Shalash shares, it meant unexpected fees. “I didn’t know I would have to pay for things like attendance points and homework questions and quizzes on many online and digital platforms.”

For this reason, Hansen set out to take his company’s textbooks and content sets — that have been trusted for decades by faculty and students — and try something radical. “It was high time to change the business model and address the fundamental student concern,” he says. “I want high-quality learning materials and I want them at an affordable price.”

A lesson from sharing

Inspiration came by looking to the way a new generation of consumers interact with media and applying it to the classroom. “If you think about Uber, if you think about Spotify, if you think about Netflix, these are all models that today’s consumer and today’s student are not only familiar with, but very comfortable with,” says Hansen. “I don’t see any reason why that should be limited to traditional media and not to the educational space.”

For Shalash, this makes sense. In fact, he says, it’s “about time” the subscription model made its mark on higher education. “There are too many little costs that pile up on students. Life itself isn’t cheap. Trying to pay $200 to $300 for a textbook? That’s just one of those things I’m not going to do. So thinking about it from that standpoint, I think this is really going to change it all.”