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Saving Students Money, By the Book

Monday, February 18, 2013

Pittsburgh -- As an actuarial science major, RMU junior Jeff Siwik loves math but is far less enamored with the thick mathematics textbooks that have forced him to shell out as much as $500 each semester.

Siwik’s experience is typical. As part of a class project in Business and Professional Communications last spring, Siwik and classmates learned that the average college student spends approximately $1,000 each year on textbooks. The class conducted a survey of Robert Morris students, and approximately 14 percent of respondents reported knowing at least one student who dropped out of school because they could not afford to pay for textbooks.

Now the university is doing something about it. In the fall, Robert Morris launched a textbook reserve program, in which RMU purchases several copies of textbooks for the most in-demand courses on campus, and places them in reserve in the University Library for students to use there for up to three hours at a time.

The university spent approximately $10,500 to purchase 170 textbooks, covering courses from RMU’s general education requirements that all students must fulfill. More than 850 students made use of the textbooks, saving each an estimated $300 for the semester. RMU has expanded the program in the spring semester, offering more than 200 textbooks in approximately 70 general education courses and several upper-level courses. It will cost RMU $6,500 for the spring.

“We got special requests from faculty who use particularly pricey textbooks,” said John Michalenko, vice president for student life at RMU.

The program grew out of the work of the RMU retention committee, which includes faculty and staff who investigate why students drop out of the university and come up with solutions to help them finish their degree. Michalenko co-chairs the committee along with Carl Ross, university professor of nursing. Among the topics on the committee’s agenda as it met last spring was the escalating cost of textbooks, which have risen at the three times the rate of inflation since 1978, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It so happened that Michalenko’s wife, Julianne, who teaches classes in RMU’s communication skills program, was looking for a project for the sophomore students in the Honors section of her Business and Professional Communications course.

“Part of our class is to brainstorm solutions that fit the needs of a client. It’s better to have a real-world experience than just a case study,” said Julianne Michalenko.

Her students were eager to tackle a problem that had such a significant impact on their own lives. They met periodically with the retention committee members who were assigned to study textbook costs. The students presented six solutions that committee members winnowed down to three: converting university-wide to e-books delivered on iPads; a book bartering system; and a textbook reserve program.

That third option proved the most feasible, and the students’ research found similar programs at the University of Texas at San Antonio and Patrick Henry College in Virginia. The RMU students were heartened by the success of a textbook reserve program at two vastly different institutions, one a large public university and the other a small private college. That told them the idea was adaptable enough to work at RMU.

“It’s worked out amazingly well. You would have thought we would have done this sooner,” said Julianne Michalenko.

The simplicity of the textbook reserve program is what appeals to Siwik, who notes that shopping online for the best textbook deal is one of a student’s most arduous tasks each semester. His classmate Josef Landon anticipates that long after he graduates from Robert Morris, students will still be making use of the textbook reserve program he helped to create.

“I like the feeling that we gave something back to the university,” said Landon.

Robert Morris University, founded in 1921, is a private, four-year institution with an enrollment of approximately 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The university offers 60 undergraduate and 20 graduate programs. An estimated 22,000 alumni live and work in western Pennsylvania.