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Virginia State U. Business School Buys E-Textbooks for Students

Why do students have to pay for college textbooks? Couldn’t the reading material be considered part of the college infrastructure paid for by officials as part of tuition, like classroom buildings and course-management systems?

Virginia State University is experimenting with that idea this fall, with a new effort to give free e-textbooks to students in its business school for eight core courses. The university recently negotiated a deal with upstart publisher Flat World Knowledge that treats buying e-books like buying campuswide software—with the institution paying a small per-student fee. The university plans to formally announce the deal Tuesday.

Student complaints about the high cost of traditional textbooks drove the university to try the giveaway. “For our accounting books senior year, there’s nothing under $250,” said Mirta Martin, dean of the Virginia State University business school. “What the students were saying is we don’t have the money to purchase these books.”

Last year Ms. Martin became so frustrated from hearing stories about students who were performing poorly because they could not afford textbooks that she made a pledge that no needy student would go without a book. She asked community officials and others to donate to a fund to pay for books of students who came forward asking for financial help, and last year that project paid for $4,000 worth of books for students. But Ms. Martin felt that philanthropic model was not sustainable, so she began reaching out to publishers to see if the institution could get some sort of bulk rate that would allow the institution to pay for textbooks for all students.

The university found Flat World Knowledge, which offers free e-textbooks to students and makes money by selling study guides and printed versions.

In its standard model, Flat World offers free access to its textbooks only while students are online. If students want to download a copy to their own computers, they must pay $24.95 for a PDF (a print edition costs about $30). But the publisher offered the business school a bulk rate of $20 per student per course, and it will allow students at the school to download not only the digital copies but also the study guide, audio version, or iPad edition (a bundle that would typically cost about $100).

“It’s a really significant shift in the business model of the publishing industry,” argues Eric Frank, president and co-founder of Flat World Knowledge, who compared the new approach with the way colleges buy software licenses.

Professors at the university spent the last few months frantically reviewing Flat World’s available textbooks to see which ones to adopt, as part of a curriculum review that was already under way.

If the experiment goes well, the business school will hope to add more courses next semester. Ms. Martin says her hope is to give away e-books for students in about 30 courses by about 18 months from now.

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