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Thursday, May 6, 2021 News

SPARC Launches Automatic Textbook Billing Contract Library

Open Education

Today, SPARC released a new resource to help equip institutions to examine the fine print behind automatic textbook billing programs, also known as “Inclusive Access.” The Automatic Textbook Billing Contract Library offers a structured analysis of more than 70 contracts with major vendors obtained through public records requests from 37 institutions in 24 states. The original contracts and their analysis is now available for download on the SPARC website. 

SPARC began developing this resource in response to our increasing concern over the growth of “Inclusive Access,” a model designed to automatically charge students for digital textbooks through tuition and fees. Major publishers and bookstore chains have been marketing this model in the name of textbook affordability, but there are widespread concerns over the short-term and long-term negative repercussions for students.

U.S. PIRG exposed the problems with automatic textbook billing in their 2020 report Automatic Textbooks Billing: An Offer Students Can’t Refuse?   Their analysis of public records from more than 30 campuses found that many automatic textbook billing programs fail to protect students. For example, some contracts included quotas that would penalize institutions if too many students opted-out, and most failed to protect against future price inflation. 

SPARC’s Automatic Textbook Billing Contract Library can be used to compare, contrast and download the full text of the more than 70 legal agreements with major vendors including Cengage, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Follett, Barnes & Noble, and VitalSource. The analysis breaks down each contract based on key provisions such as resale rates, discount structures, and student data privacy. Contracts can also be filtered and sorted by state, vendor, and institution. 

SPARC believes that if campuses are going to establish automatic textbook billing programs, they must work for students—not just publishers—and that starts with contracts that guarantee student consent through an opt-in system, that protect student data privacy, and that safeguard against future price inflation. Students should be able to choose where they shop for textbooks, and a model that imposes publisher-set prices and terms of service without explicit consent is the very opposite of “inclusive.”

We will continue to expand the contract library through additional public records requests and develop additional advocacy resources. For more information and to get involved, contact project manager Winni Zhang at [email protected].


SPARC would like to acknowledge community members who collaborated to shape this resource and other information on automatic billing as part of a 2020 working group. This includes Marilyn Billings, Cheryl A Cuillier, Kristina DeVoe, Carrie Gits, Regina Gong, Hillary Miller, Richard Sebastian, Kaitlyn Vitez, and Megan Wacha. 

SPARC is also part of the Free the Textbook Campaign, an initiative that calls on college and university leaders, educators and students to closely examine the fine print of their automatic textbook billing programs and make sure they are inclusive of all students.

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