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San Antonio Colleges to Loan Digital Textbooks for Free

Alamo Colleges will email students before the start of classes and ask them to choose either a physical or digital copy of textbooks and instructional materials, to be paid for by $17 million in federal grant funding.

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(TNS) — Thousands of students at all five Alamo Colleges will start the new year with a little more money in their pockets thanks to a $17 million investment in a free textbook rental program.

It will start during the spring semester and run through the summer of 2022. But even students enrolled for the current “wintermester” — three-week courses taught online during the holidays — will have free access to textbooks through a soft launch.

“We need to ensure that students have and procure instructional materials, because that is also key to success,” said Mike Flores, the community college district's chancellor. “Many of our students were kind of utilizing the catch-as-catch-can approach ... ‘Do I buy that book or do I use that money for something else?’”

And some weren’t enrolled at all, he said, because textbooks are part of the equation every student must calculate: Can I afford it?

With the cost of textbooks averaging $100 to $150 apiece, and even more in some cases, officials hope the program will encourage students to stay in school and will improve their academic performance.

Nicolas Flores, 19, spent about $500 on three textbooks in the fall. That was about average for a semester during his two years at Palo Alto College — except for the period when classes were remote and he had access to online books.

Flores is a kinesiology student about to enter his last semester at PAC before transferring to the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is taking mostly in-person classes again, and he welcomes the financial help with textbooks.

“I had to pay for my phone bill, my car, my tuition bill,” he said. “This semester, as a student, I will be so relieved and I’ll be able to save more money for other necessary things, like health care.”

Once the program is operating at full scale, the district expects nearly all of its 65,000 students to take advantage. It will use federal emergency funds at first, but officials will have to decide how to pay for the program after the summer.

Barnes & Noble College, part of Barnes & Noble Education Inc., will take over management of Alamo Colleges bookstores in a partnership with the district to administer the program.

Students will receive an email before the start of classes allowing them to select either a physical or digital copy of textbooks and instructional materials. The rental textbooks will be issued to students through campus bookstores.

For now, the district has set aside $17 million from grants received through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, or HEERF. Chancellor Flores said the plan is to assess the cost through the pilot launch. That will help officials figure out how to fund the program beyond the summer.

“The thought is that we’ll see what the baseline is for the spring and the summer,” he said. “Then be able to get what the full cost will be fall, spring and summer, and work on plans to resource that, mostly institutionally, and then see if there would be a need to also provide a small fee to be able to continue at scale, long-term.”

The cost may vary depending on how many students choose to rent, how many rent physical versus digital textbooks, and how many make use of online materials developed by Alamo Colleges faculty and staff, known as “open educational resources.”

A few years ago, the district formed a Universal Access Task Force to focus on these types of issues across the district, Chancellor Flores said. The cost of textbooks has been part of that discussion; officials recognize it can affect a student’s ability to enroll and remain in school.

In previous years, only 50 to 60 percent of students throughout Alamo Colleges were able to acquire learning materials for their classes, according to district estimates. Between the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, the district had a 68 to 70 percent retention rate, Flores said.

The hope is that more students will stay in school if they know that textbooks and other materials will not be a financial burden.

“Our belief is also that student success will increase because all students will have their textbooks or instructional materials,” Flores said. “So our thought is that students will be able to prepare. It will alleviate some of the worries that they have trying to figure out how to get access to the materials.”

©2021 the San Antonio Express-News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.