The Rise of Inclusive Access: Digging into recent data on Higher Ed course materialsAuthor Phil Hill /by Phil Hill
We all know that the higher ed textbooks – more broadly and accurately described as course materials – have been changing over time. Student spending on course materials continues to decline and even list prices have plateaued or even started to drop over the past three years. The market changes were apparent before the global pandemic, but we are now getting much better data on further changes driven by lockdowns and shifts to remote and online learning models.
And if you dig into the data, it becomes more apparent just how important the rise of Inclusive Access (IA) has become. Cheryl Cuillier from the University of Arizona described IA in Chapter 16 of The Evolution of Affordable Content Efforts in the Higher Education Environment: Programs, Case Studies, and Examples:
While the details may vary by publisher, vendor, retailer, or institution, inclusive access generally works like this: Students receive access to digital course materials on or before the first day of class. Content is usually linked in the campus learning management system (LMS). Access for enrolled students is free during a brief opt-out period at the beginning of the course; if students opt out of buying the inclusive access content by the deadline, their access disappears. If they do not opt out, access continues and they are automatically charged for the content. Because opt-out rates tend to be low, publishers say they can afford to offer volume discounts at substantial savings (“as much as 70 percent” [Dimeo, 2017, Michael Hale section, para. 8]). Student access to purchased materials ends at a length of time negotiated with the publisher.
Higher Ed Course Materials
Before we get into the IA data, let’s start from some top-level data and narrow down. The Association of American Publishers (AAP) puts out an industry quick report each month, based on company reporting. With today’s release they share information for calendar year 2020 showing a continued decline in overall publisher revenues.
Revenues from Higher Education Course Materials were down 47.7% for the month, as compared to December of 2019, coming in at $177.0 million. On calendar-year basis, Higher Education revenues were down 4.3% to $2.9 billion.
It is worth noting that the timing of purchases changed quite a bit over the past year, leaving some volatility in the monthly numbers – it is worth paying more attention to the calendar-year numbers than the December numbers.
Digital Course Materials
There are two recent data releases presented at bookstore conferences that provide insight into the format of the course materials and underlying business models. The first source is from the Independent College Bookstore Association (ICBA), which had its annual meeting earlier this month. One of the most popular sessions each year is the data presented by Jared Pearlman and Ryan Peterson from Verba / VitalSource (slides available here), using data from platforms that deliver course materials through college bookstores. Data are for Winter / Spring terms for 2020/21. The second source comes from the National Association of College Stores (NACS), which released a new Faculty Watch survey (report available here, for purchase) as part of their annual CAMEX meeting. Their data comes from a survey of nearly 1,000 faculty at 17 two- and four-year colleges and universities in the US and Canada in November and December 2020. While neither data approach is comprehensive, they do illuminate some important trends.
Verba / Vital Source data show an interesting trend for 2020 – new and digital have increased significantly, while used and rental have decreased. It is important to note that the Digital category includes e-texts and courseware purchased through bookstores or university websites, but paper access codes and access codes bundled with print textbooks show up in New.
Further data in that presentation show that combining Digital plus Digital Keywords embedded in the titles leads to a 32% unit share of course materials. Clearly digital is rising, and the pandemic has led to real reductions in Used and Rental.
NACS shows a related trend for a continuing increase in the percent of faculty preferring digital course materials. Also note that digital material bundled with print textbooks shows up in Print, not Digital.
This increase in digital is not expected to be temporary, with 73% of faculty reporting the they expect “more frequent use of technology or digital content in courses” even after the pandemic.
Now let’s move into the subset of digital encompassing Inclusive Access. NACS shows a view of the demand-side, with the percent of faculty who have participated in an Inclusive Access program nearly doubling every year since 2017, with recent participation of 21%. Not only is this a significant acceleration, but it also puts us into mainstream adoption if using the Diffusion of Innovations framework.
If you look at Verba / VitalSource, there are similar trends but not as dramatic. However, this is partially explained by an accumulation method (percent who have participated) vs. a current-term measurement. Verba Compare is the traditional platform usage for students to find textbooks through a bookstore or university site.
Verba / VitalSource data also show the supply-side changing, as the number of publishers participating in Inclusive Access programs has increased significantly over the past two years.
More to Come
There’s much more useful information in both the Verba / VitalSource slide deck and the NACS Faculty Watch report, and Inside Higher Ed covered the NACS report in this article.
I’ll address additional subjects in future posts, such as the motivations and impacts of Inclusive Access as well as extended business models such as Equitable Access. For now, it is valuable to have data showing the increase in digital course materials as well as the significant and recent rise of Inclusive Access.
Update 2/26: Fixed typo in AAP name.