The Problem with Textbook Access Codes

College Textbooks


You went ahead and did it. You ordered a brand new textbook, $189 online, because you needed the access code, that secret password under the scratch off that opens the gateway to online flashcards, practice quizzes, homework assignments, and everything you need to make it through this semester’s course alive. Only when you scratched off your ticket to an A, the letter and number sequence smudged, leaving you hopeless, and helpless, as you frantically called every customer service number, just to be told you would have to purchase a new access code for two-thirds the price of the textbook. Are you kidding me? Unfortunately, access code frustrations, including this scenario, happen to college students all of the time.

Recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education told the story of a business major and his fiancee who were taking a course together and had the hopes of sharing the same textbook ($150). This textbook, however, had an access code that like most other access codes, can only be activated once. As their college course required each student to have an access code to take part in online discussions as well as submit homework, and since the access code could not be sold separately, they were forced to purchase two textbooks. Once these codes have been activated, the textbooks become practically worthless in resale value.

In this situation, the activation code could not be sold separately, but even when they are, the cost to buy one is nearly the cost of the textbook. Students who purchase used textbooks and then purchase the code separately actually spend more than the students who just buy the new book. Then there’s the issue of the activation codes not being printed clearly, or being printed behind a sticker that peels off part of the code, in which case, students are just out of luck unless they want to spend more money getting a new code.

With students having to pay more for this additional content, and then being unable to sell their book from having used it, there is plenty of displeasure on college campuses for the activation code system. There are undoubtedly students who, when the online content is optional, will refuse to take advantage just to be able to sell the book back. When it comes down to getting the most out of your textbook, or having enough money at the end of the fall semester to fly home, a tough call has to be made, and education may not win. Students shouldn’t have to be put in this situation.

This also brings to question how much textbooks are truly worth. If the price of the activation code is nearly the price of the book, what are students really paying for? If the online content is so rich, then why can’t students just pay for the activation code and forget about the textbook? There will be students who have to make that decision as well.

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