Dr. Jacob Jenkins, Dr. Luis Sánchez, Dr. Megan Schraedley, Dr. Jamie Hannans, Ms. Nitzan Navick, and Ms. Jade Young released a report in 2020 that explored how textbook costs impact students from historically marginalized backgrounds at Hispanic- Serving Institutions (HSI). After receiving OEGlobal’s Award for Open Research for their excellent work, Dr. Jenkins sat down with Cailyn Nagle, the Michelson 20MM Foundation’s OER Program Manager, to discuss the findings of their report, including a look into some of its unpublished results. Dr. Jenkins is an Associate Professor of Communication at California State University Channel Islands and a Founding Director of the California Alliance for Open Education (CAopenEd). 

CailynThe study digs into the impact that textbook costs have on students attending Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI), can you talk about the importance of this focus?

JacobYeah, I feel like textbook affordability, OER, no-cost courses—it’s almost like there’s an assumed benefit to their use. It is assumed that these things help vulnerable populations, it’s assumed that they help remove educational barriers. But there was virtually no literature that looked at whether these assumptions were actually true. Can we assume if you’re low income that a no-cost course will allow you to take more classes, or will help by eliminating non-tuition costs? No one seemed to disagree with these assumptions, yet there was no evidence to actually show they were true. 

Most published data on OER’s use in the classroom was disaggregated—showing that the purchase of traditional textbooks increased stress across the board—yet there was no existing data showing its specific impact on historically underserved students. And so, we wanted empirically-based results that we could use to help our students. CSU Channel Island is an HSI with a diverse student population, so we wanted to see for ourselves what correlations exist—if any.

In the end, we were surprised by how true those previous assumptions were about OER’s benefit. We looked at several different factors, and every single statistically significant correlation revealed a greater barrier for historically underserved students. There was nothing that even came close to going the other way. It showed, for example, that historically underserved students were less likely to purchase textbooks on the first day, less likely to buy the required course materials at all, more likely to fail a class due to textbook costs, less likely to take more units, and on and on. We were almost surprised by how obvious the discrepancies were. 

Cailyn: The word barrier can mean so many things and be used in so many ways. Sometimes it’s hard to actually picture what material impacts these barriers have on students. In your experience on campus as an educator, how do these barriers play out, and how do students navigate them? 

Jacob: What I’ve learned and realized firsthand is that fear of the unknown is a major factor for many first-generation students–that imposter syndrome about whether or not they really belong in college. “Can I do this? Do I belong here? Why doesn’t anyone else look like me?” Not having those mental models or personal mentors at home when you’re taking the leap from high school to college also means that they sometimes don’t know how the process works. And once they get on campus, not having mentors or faculty who they can relate to, who perhaps look like them, is another potential barrier. 

In fact, I’ve been surprised to hear so many students talk about the pressures they felt to not attend college. I was a first-generation graduate student, but my parents went to college. It was almost a joke, for lack of a better term, growing up that my parents would say things like, “You’re going to college, whether you like it or not.” I remember my dad filled out at least one scholarship application on my behalf. 

In contrast, many first-generation college students have shared with me about the tension they felt because their parents did not attend college and maybe didn’t understand the system, or didn’t trust the system, or didn’t exactly see what it all was leading to. In the short term, these students are not making as much money, they’re not working at the family shop let’s say or in the strawberry fields surrounding our campus. And so, some students almost feel like they’re abandoning their families, or that they’re being bad sons and daughters by attending college. To hear this really blew my mind and broke my heart because I couldn’t imagine ever being made to feel that way.

On a more tangible note, there’s also the issue of non-tuition costs. Students are often surprised by textbook costs specifically, they’re surprised by them and unprepared for them. They might have tuition covered, but then textbooks are an unexpected expense that they don’t have the money on-hand for. They’re left with sticker shock, waiting for their next paycheck, which leads to not having the required textbook on the first day of class, which then leads to many of them attempting classes without buying a textbook at all.

CailynBarriers not only exist and students are dealing with them in ways that are very real and tangible, but also they show up numerically. Were there any particular findings that stood out to you that underscore these issues? 

JacobWe’ve come to understand it as a lack of navigational capital. One finding stuck out to me in particular that actually didn’t find its way into our published study: We found first-generation college students reported spending more money per semester on textbooks, as well as having to buy more textbooks each semester. There was a correlation between being historically underserved, and buying more textbooks and spending more on those textbooks. 

This didn’t make much sense to us at first. Why would a student’s first-generation status correlate to taking more classes that require more expensive textbooks? Then while talking to some of our colleagues who were first-generation themselves, we had a realization. Without those mental models, without those examples at home or a support network on campus, these students had no way of knowing how best to navigate the system. They didn’t have anyone to share textbooks with, for example, or anyone to tell them they could wait and see if they’d even need the “suggested” course materials. And without knowing these details, a first-generation student might go to the bookstore and just buy everything in sight.

This led to the tendency for first-generation students to go to the most expensive place they could to buy their textbooks, and then to buy everything on the list because they’d never been told anything differently. This is one of the reasons why historically underserved students felt required to buy more textbooks and why they spent more money each semester on textbooks, as compared to their peers with more navigational capital. 

This blog series aims to highlight the work being done by Spark Grantees both within and beyond the aims of the Spark Grant. Check back for more interviews with the talented and hardworking grantees of the 2021 OER funding cycle.

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation seeking to accelerate progress towards a more just world through grantmaking, operating programs, and impact investing. Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.

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