Locked In and Priced Out–Students Reject Automatic Textbook Billing

Biden Administration’s support for textbook billing regulations is critical, student need clearer than ever 


LOS ANGELES—As the Biden Administration considers proposed rules to regulate the textbook industry, Michelson 20MM released a survey report shedding light on the impacts of automatic textbook billing programs on students across the US. The report, Understanding the Student Experience of Automatic Textbook Billing: A Small-Scale Student Survey, surfaces alarming trends in textbook purchasing experiences of college students, spotlighting the urgent need for enhanced consumer protections in a market that uniquely impacts students as “captive consumers.”

Automatic textbook billing is a billing model that automatically charges students’ accounts for textbooks and other course materials. As the Department of Education (ED) looks to amend the rules that allowed institutions to automatically charge students for textbooks and other course materials, these two key findings from the report must be considered:

Key Findings:

  1. More than half of students believe automatic textbook billing does not save them money, yet remain enrolled in the program due to a lack of clarity around other options, not being able to access their homework outside of the program, or concerns about not being able to use financial aid outside of the program.
  2. Three-quarters of students experienced some level of confusion or miscommunication around their ability to opt out of automatic textbook billing. This is a systemic issue in the implementation of automatic billing programs that limit students’ autonomy over their financial choices related to educational materials.

These findings raise serious concerns if students are “free to make the choices they regard as in their own best interests as consumers,” as Congress required.

“These survey results reveal a disconnect between the promise of cost savings by publishers and the realities faced by students on the ground. Students are savvy consumers; they recognize when a deal doesn’t add up. It’s crucial that their rights, options, and preferences lead the conversation on textbook affordability,” said Cailyn Nagle, Open Educational Resources Senior Program Manager at Michelson 20MM. “This is a critical moment for the Biden Administration to stick to their word to protect students, make higher education more affordable, and show young voters that they have their backs on this issue.”

The dominance of a few major publishers and the consolidation of college bookstore vendors have driven up costs. With textbook sellers pushing new billing models as the answer to the accessibility crisis, models created by those who profit from them deserve added scrutiny. This survey comes on the heels of a new Student PIRG report that found uncertain savings, high quotas, and commission payments for participating colleges hidden in automatic textbook billing contracts. This affordability crisis makes student choice imperative as they navigate the significant financial barriers across the higher education ecosystem.

Michelson 20MM’s Recommendations for Action

  • Continued study of student preferences on course material procurement
  • Enforcement of existing regulations that ensure transparency and fair pricing in textbook sales.
  • Shifting from “opt-out” to “opt-in” models for automatic textbook billing to ensure student choice.
  • Greater clarity and oversight so students fully understand their options around accessing their financial aid funds for course materials

“As we look towards the future, it’s imperative that all stakeholders in higher education — publishers, institutions, and policymakers — prioritize the financial well-being, success, and autonomy of students,” concludes Nagle. “This report serves as a call to action to protect our students and ensure that education remains accessible to all.”

The full report, including detailed survey results and analysis, is available here


Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation working toward equity for underserved and historically underrepresented communities by expanding access to educational and employment opportunities, increasing affordability of educational programs, and ensuring the necessary supports are in place for individuals to thrive. To do so, we work in the following verticals: Digital Equity, Intellectual Property, Smart Justice, Student Basic Needs, and Open Educational Resources (OER). Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations. Learn more at 20mm.org.

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Jun 26, 2024 | 20 Million Minds, News