Friday Follow Up

Inclusive Access battle, Arnold Ventures new hire, and updates on Online

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Welcome to our second edition of Friday Follow Up, where we update previous stories based on recent news. While this series is meant for On EdTech+ premium subscribers, this edition includes a section meant for free subscribers / readers, which I’ll explain shortly.

This week we had two podcast updates to note:

  • I was interviewed by Drumm McNaughton again for his Changing Higher Ed podcast, discussing an “overview of how technology is reshaping the EdTech arena and the potential risks of the current state of OPMs.”

  • Our first 2024 episode of Online Education Across the Atlantic was released today, sharing the big stories that Morgan, Neil, and I are watching this year.

The End of Inclusive Access?

I published a premium post on Tuesday that described regulatory actions aimed at Inclusive Access. There were several readers who asked for this content to be shared freely due to the lack of coverage on this important topic. Free subscribers will see the same section following; premium subscribers will not as they have already received the post (fyi - I’m trying out a new Beehiiv feature to avoid duplicate content when re-sharing posts).

There is an interesting thread on the CCCOER community (h/t Stephen Downes) about the negotiated rulemaking started this week and how the US Department of Education (ED) has drafted an initial position paper that would effectively kill, or fundamentally change, the Inclusive Access and Equitable Access models favored by academic publishers. The thread is based on an email describing the changes.

In preparation for the U.S. Dept. of Education’s negotiated rulemaking beginning Monday, Jan. 8th, to review the current education code on Cash Management, which allows for institutions to charge student accounts for course materials as part of tuition and fees (also known as Inclusive Access, Equitable Access, First Day, Complete, AutoAccess, etc.), the Dept. release proposed language which essentially eliminates the ability for institutions to continue to run these programs as is. Instead, the proposed language would only allow for a similar program when institutions demonstrate a health or safety reason for including books and supplies in tuition and fees or if the institution is the only option for students to access the supplies or course materials.

The actual ED position paper can be found here.

What makes this thread interesting is that one of the proponents (or possibly one of the authors) of the ED policy position, Nicole Allen, responded to the thread with useful descriptions. I strongly believe that her descriptions are not just accurate, but endorsed and coordinated, so they are worth considering.

SPARC has been monitoring this new development and happy to share more background. The Department of Education has started a negotiated rulemaking process to review several areas of higher ed regulations, including a section called "Cash Management." This section includes the provision adopted in 2016 permitting institutions to include the cost of books and supplies in tuition and fees without student authorization, which opened the door to the proliferation of the inclusive access textbook billing model. 

As one of its updates to the Cash Management regulation, the Department has proposed eliminating the books and supplies provision due to concerns over transparency and student choice—concerns which have long been echoed by student and consumer advocates. SPARC is supportive of the Department’s proposal and included it as our primary recommendation in the 2023 public comment period. While the proposal would not actually eliminate inclusive access programs, it would impact how many are currently implemented. For example, programs may shift to being opt-in (rather than opt-out) so that course materials aren’t automatically billed without student authorization.  

Here is the Department’s description of the proposed change:

“Eliminate the provision allowing institutions to include the cost of books and supplies as part of tuition and fees (§ 668.164(c) and (m)). Current regulations permit schools to automatically charge students for books and supplies as part of tuition and fees, without student authorization, even when the materials can be obtained from a source other than the institution. The regulations permit these charges if the school has a contract with a third-party publisher or retailer, offers the books “below competitive market rates,” and gives students a way to opt out, so long as the student can obtain the books and supplies by the seventh day of the payment period. The Department is concerned that lack of disclosure and transparency limits students' ability to find less expensive materials or assess if their school is offering the most affordable arrangement. Under the proposal, we would maintain the allowance for including books and supplies in tuition and fees when institutions demonstrate there is a compelling health or safety reason, or if the institution is the only option for students to access the books or supplies.”

Monday’s hearing is only the beginning of a long process that will play out over many months. SPARC will be in attendance at the hearing and will keep the community informed of opportunities to weigh in. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or hear additional discussion about this on your campuses.

Nicole is right that this is the beginning of a long process, but we clearly know ED’s position and that of its aligned activist groups.

Where I disagree is that should this policy change be adopted, that it would simply require changes such as moving from opt-out to opt-in. The entire business model behind IA/EA would be undermined, and at best become a shell of itself.

It could be that the end result of the negotiated rulemaking process will be a set of changes (such as opt-out to opt-in) that will keep IA/EA in place, but that is not the starting position.

For those of you thinking there goes Arnold Ventures again, it turns out that it is a different billionaire-funded activist organization behind this move. Namely the Michelson 20MM Foundation (formerly 20 Million Minds), funded by Dr. Gary Michelson. They are the funding source for nearly all of the work in this area, although their playbook is quite similar to Arnold Ventures.

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