Automatic Billing/”Inclusive Access”

During the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, when virtually all segments of education were suddenly forced to cease in-person instruction and teach at a distance, the benefits of resources that could be accessed digitally were made apparent to populations that previously may have not had an interest. At the same time, the marketing of novel approaches to providing students with low-cost access to commercial digital resources appeared to increase. While “inclusive access” may take many forms, it generally involves a process that provides students with access to digital resources that they are automatically charged for at the time of enrollment or that they must pay for by a time certain, or lose their access. Although it is a model that is likely better-suited for segments of higher education with a predominantly full-time student population, it has found its way into community colleges.

In February of 2020, a review of the implementation of these practices was conducted by the U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) Education Fund. The resulting report, Automatic Textbook Billings – an offer students can’t refuse?, reviews what has transpired and highlights five major problems with the automatic billing contracts it reviewed. The full report is available for download as a PDF.

While the aforementioned report is a timely and thorough exploration of this practice, this publisher-provided approach to providing low-cost digital resources has been a matter of concern among the OER community. In July of 2019, OpenStax provided an overview of the practice and discussed reasons for concern in a blog post titled Giving Inclusive Access a 2nd Look. They also shared nine questions that should be considered to ensure a positive student experience with any implementation of this practice. These are questions that institutions should be asking on behalf of their students:

  1. Does the inclusive access program enhance academic freedom by offering affordable content from a variety of sources including open educational resources (OER)?
  2. Does the inclusive access program provide permanent access to core content after the subscription period ends?
  3. Does the inclusive access program have data agreements that protect students and provide data sharing transparency with the participating school?
  4. Does the inclusive access program capture student data for advertising or marketing purposes?
  5. Does the inclusive access program include reasonably priced print options for the 10 percent of students who still need or prefer it to digital material?
  6. Does the inclusive access program offer fair pricing for online homework or other courseware components if offered separately?
  7. Does the inclusive access program keep OER content free, or does it charge for it?
  8. Does the inclusive access program have a clearly stated and generous opt-out period?
  9. Is the inclusive access program fee clearly delineated as part of the course listing alongside other similar fees such as lab fees and tuition?

The Academic Senate for California Community Colleges is on record expressing its concerns – and the ASCCC OERI has conducted webinars on the topic. Regardless of whether such a program requires students to opt-out or opt-in, they offer a short-term resolution to a long-term issue.

The adopted ASCCC position calls on the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges to:

  • provide guidance to local senates regarding the potential impact of inclusive access and questions to be asked about such programs if locally proposed;
  • recognize the benefits and value of the used textbook market as a source of low-cost and lasting texts; and
  • encourage faculty and colleges to carefully consider the impact of inclusive access and recognize that while such programs may address immediate student needs, they may not work in students’ long-term interest.