College to Cover Costs of Course Materials at New Bookstore

A new initiative providing all course materials to students at no up-front cost was announced to the faculty on Nov. 7. The materials will be distributed out of the former A.J. Hastings storefront, which the college plans to lease.

College to Cover Costs of Course Materials at New Bookstore
The college is planning to lease 45 S. Pleasant St., which was the home of A.J. Hastings for 75 years. Photo courtesy of A.J. Hastings. 

At a faculty meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 7, Provost and Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein outlined a new initiative starting next fall that will cover the costs of course reading materials for all students and distribute them from a brick-and-mortar location in town.

The college is close to an agreement with the education products company Follett to provide the materials, Epstein said. She added that talks are also underway on a lease on the storefront at 45 S. Pleasant St., which was the home of A.J. Hastings for 75 years.

The materials provided by the Amherst College Textbook Solution (ACTS) will include textbooks and other books from both academic and general-audience presses and will be students’ to keep. The program includes an option for students to sell the books back to Follett at the end of the year.

The new initiative follows moves in recent years to make supplies for art classes and lab-based courses available to students at no upfront cost. It reflects a commitment to make all courses equally accessible to students regardless of their financial background, said Jesse Barba, director of institutional research and registrar services, at the meeting.

Of course, as President Michael Elliott emphasized, the materials will not be “free,” but simply included in students’ tuition and financial aid packages.

Much of the faculty meeting was focused on the rollout of ACTS, which will involve trials in a few classes in the spring semester before a full implementation in the fall of 2024.

One issue that faculty raised was the economic impact on Amherst Books, the town’s independent bookseller, which typically sells assigned books at the beginning of each semester.

Epstein said that because it would not sell “trade books” for a general audience, the initiative won’t “directly compete” with Amherst Books. Moreover, Barba said that the college gave Amherst Books an opportunity to bid for the right to provide the course materials, which the store ultimately declined to do.

“In the end, I think they wanted to maintain their independence,” he said at the meeting. “They didn’t want to be Amherst College Books, they wanted to be Amherst Books.”

Epstein said that by partnering with Follett, a large-scale operation with warehouses across the country, the college was achieving significant savings.

“Nationally the average cost of textbooks is about $1,200 per year,” she said. “We will now be able to provide course materials for less than half that.”

Faculty expressed a number of concerns about the program and the logistics of its implementation.

Joshua Guilford, professor of English and film and media studies (FAMS), said he was worried that if streaming service subscriptions and access to movies were not covered by the program, FAMS classes might become disproportionately expensive for students.

Barba said that films and streaming services would not be included for now, but that the college is examining its options. Though he had hoped to include them initially, the effort turned out to be “a copyright nightmare of absolutely epic proportions,” he said.

Other concerns included the potential burden on professors, who now will have to have their fall syllabi in place by April instead of the beginning of the semester.

“I just want to respectfully ask that we not minimize the impact that this will have on us as laborers but also as pedagogues,” said Amelie Hastie, professor of English and FAMS. “To submit these requests in the most difficult month of the spring semester is an enormous impact.”

Though acknowledging the impact, Professor of Psychology Catherine Sanderson, who serves on the committee overseeing ACTS’ implementation, emphasized its benefits.

“This is an important thing that it’s going to involve a little bit of pain for faculty. I’m aware of that,” she said. “But it's for the students and it’s to improve the pedagogical experience that students will have in our classes.”