Access code costs continue to burden students

The fall means it’s time for thousands of students to return to their studies in B.C. Thanks to the tremendous efforts of educators across the province, some students will be spending less on textbooks through the adoption of open textbooks. However, others will be required to purchase textbooks and/or access codes to digital textbooks and online homework systems.

Post by Krista Lambert, Advisor, Open Education, BCcampus

Curious about what costs plague students heading back to school, BCcampus conducted research that shows students at four B.C. post-secondary institutions will spend a combined $3.7 million dollars this fall on access codes to online publisher resources.

For classes that require access to homework systems or digital publisher resources, students pay, on average, $92 per course for an access code. Similar findings were cited in a 2016 report by the Student Public Interest Research Group (SPIRG). According to this U.S. research, the average cost of an access code sold solo (i.e., not bundled with a textbook or primary course material of any form) was $100.24. In bookstores, only 28% of access codes were offered in unbundled form. Even when acquired directly from the publisher, only 56% of all required access codes were offered without additional materials bundled in, despite federal law requiring materials to be sold separately. (SPIRG, Access Denied, 2016)

What students get in return for paying the access code fee varies. Most commonly, it appears that learners are given a digital textbook to use online and some type of online platform that may include videos, additional practice questions, learning activities, or homework systems including graded quizzes and assignments.

There are a couple of concerns around the required purchase of access codes for post-secondary students:

  1. In the majority of cases, students lose access to the materials at the end of the semester. A bookstore informed us that students may have access for the lifetime of the textbook edition, but that access cannot be shared nor sold to classmates, and commonly the homework system can only be used for that first course.
  2. It is not clear how the online systems are being used by students, and there are still questions left unanswered, such as:
  • Are the homework systems in use?
  • Are the systems used as extra practice for students or are they part of a student’s grade?
  • Can alternative activities account for these marks instead?
  • Can students opt out of purchasing a code?

“As we try to reduce student costs and give more students access to post-secondary education through open resources, students are still being gouged to the point that many cannot afford to take the courses they need to complete their programs on time,” says Mary Burgess, Executive Director, BCcampus. “These ‘access codes’ actually prevent access for students.”

Furthering this research to find out how often students are required to purchase access codes for their classes, BCcampus is also investigating potential open source solutions that would grant students free access to a homework system while also allowing instructors customization and control of materials. In addition, we are interested in hearing from you about how we can prevent access from being denied to students.

If you have some ideas to share, reach out to us at

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