By Doug Ward

On a recent trip to Amherst, Mass., I strolled through the University of Massachusetts campus looking for a bookstore.

There was not a book to be found, at least outside the 30-story library. A technology shop, yes. A natural foods store, yes. A pastry counter, yes. A university apparel store, of course. But a bookstore? For that, you have to travel a mile or so to the Amherst town center.

UMass got rid of its physical campus bookstore three years ago. Instead, it has a wall of lockers and a desk staffed by Amazon. As part of a five-year contract the university signed with Amazon, students and faculty can buy textbooks online and have them shipped free to campus and nearby ZIP codes in a day, according to the university news service. (At least the contract was supposed to last five years. More about that shortly.)

Jessica Ruscello, via Unsplash

The decision to eliminate a physical bookstore wasn’t popular among many students and faculty members, the Greenfield Recorder reported. Some students complained about Amazon’s business practices. Some instructors didn’t like submitting their textbook selections to Amazon rather than to a campus bookstore. And Amazon is never popular among local merchants.

A few other colleges and universities have also eliminated their campus stores, including Purdue, Stony Brook, and Queens College. Others have kept their stores but allowed Amazon to install storefronts with lockers for one-day delivery. Amazon has pickup sites at 30 colleges and universities.

One of the advantages universities cite for these arrangements is lower costs to students. At least that’s the plan. The university doesn’t have to devote storage space to books, and Amazon’s enormous size allows it to provide the benefit of scale and convenience. Amazon also pays the universities a commission on sales or rent for campus space. Amazon guaranteed UMass commissions of $1.45 million over three years, according to the Greenfield Recorder.

Cost is no trivial matter as state support keeps declining and the individual costs of college keeps rising. UMass said its deal with Amazon was expected to save students $380 a year on textbook purchases, although the The Massachusetts Daily Collegian said students found that the savings were considerably less, especially because the free shipping did not apply to used books.

Those arrangements also don’t take into account the efforts that campus bookstores make to assist students. The KU Bookstore, for instance, has created an online price comparison tool to help students make decisions. It also works with KU Libraries, faculty and staff members to make open educational resources more readily available. And it sends all its profits back to KU through donations to campus programs and organizations.

Each campus bookstore has a different business model, but the money that Amazon promises to universities is increasingly difficult to pass up. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Laurent Heller, the vice chancellor for finance and administration cited decreased state funding as one reason the university found a deal with Amazon attractive, according to The Daily Cardinal.

“We need to find creative ways to gain revenue that goes along with our mission,” Heller was quoted as saying.

Those revenues don’t come without risk, though. At UMass, Amazon is ending its five-year contract after three years, according to the Recorder. That has left the university scrambling to find a book supplier for its bookstoreless campus starting next year.

I have mixed feelings about all this. I’m not anti-Amazon, and I certainly understand the trend toward electronic course materials and the delivery of books. Libraries have been moving in the same direction, repurposing stacks as collaborative space for students and moving many physical books to remote sites. (This isn’t always a smooth process either.) The growth of digital resources also reduces the need for physical space.

I’m certainly part of this trend. I do most of my reading electronically these days. With an e-book reader and a tablet, I read much more than I did before. The digital devices also make life easier. I can take and store notes without the need for physical filing cabinets, and retrieve them much more easily and accurately than if they were in paper form. The digital format also reduces space and makes large amounts of information much more portable.

Campuses definitely lose an important element when a bookstore goes away, though. As I walked through the UMass campus, the lack of a college bookstore felt disorienting. It was as if something vital had been removed. Without it, there was no physical location for getting a feel for the intellectual life of the campus, no single place for perusing course titles or picking up new ideas from interesting classes and books that instructors had chosen. Without a bookstore, the campus felt somehow more remote, more inaccessible.

I’ve written before about universities’ shift toward consumerism, about the way they have diminished the importance of learning by promoting themselves as carefree places with endless conveniences, cheering sports fans, and smiling students who seem to have little to do but stroll together across leafy campuses. The loss of campus bookstores fits into that trend, further hiding the intellectual life – the soul of higher education – behind the gloss of consumer appeal.

If we are to preserve that intellectual core, we need to work harder at making it more visible, especially for potential students and for the public. Otherwise, a campus becomes just a collection of buildings — buildings that at a growing number of universities lack a bookstore.

Briefly …

Fort Hays State University is taking a non-Amazon approach to remaking its bookstore. The university has entered into partnerships with Akademos, a company that provides an online portal for textbook sales; and indiCo, an arm of the National Association of College Stores that will handle general merchandise for the store. … A University of Maryland study supports the idea of using virtual reality for learning, with researchers finding that participants had better recall of information from a virtual environment than from a desktop computer, Campus Technology reports. … A survey by the New America Foundation finds that support for higher education may not be as politically divided as surveys last year suggested, Inside Higher Ed reports. Even so, respondents were much more supportive of colleges and universities near them than they were of higher education in general.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Projects associated with programs at the Center for Teaching Excellence have led to national recognition for two KU professors.

Ward Lyles, left, speaks with Krzysztof Kuczera during a session of Diversity Scholars.

Ward Lyles, assistant professor of urban planning, received one of three curriculum innovation awards from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Lyles developed a quantitative methods course that uses team-based learning and focuses on the type of work planners do in their communities.

Lyles’s class emphasizes the importance of equity and inclusion, and he said his work in CTE’s inaugural Diversity Scholars Program allowed him to think through ways to make the class more inclusive. That includes reflection sessions on how personal and group identity shape thinking.

“Personal and group reflection gets students thinking about their own identities and experiences and how their unique characteristics shape their interactions with other people,” Lyles told KU News Service. “Recognizing similarities and differences between our own identities and experiences and those of people we work with is essential for collaboration.”

Genelle Belmas with a poster explaining her game Whack-A-Judge.

Genelle Belmas, associate professor of journalism and mass communications, won top honors in a teaching competition sponsored by the Law and Policy Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Belmas used a course transformation grant from CTE to develop an interactive digital game called Whack-A-Judge. Her interest in the project grew from a popular journalism class called Gamification she developed a couple of years ago. (I wrote last year about an exercise she did in helping students move into a flow state.)

Whack-A-Judge is intended to help students learn concepts for First Amendment and Society, a 600-level class that focuses on media law. The game, which is modeled on the arcade game whack-a-mole, flashes questions at the bottom of an on-screen game board. Players click (or whack) on judges who emerge from holes on the board holding signs with the names of court cases. The goal is to whack the judge with the right answer before that judge disappears back into a hole.

Preliminary results showed that the game improved students’ test scores, Belmas said.

Where state money that might have gone to higher ed now goes

Adjusted for inflation, states’ per-student spending on higher education has declined by 25 percent since 1997.

That’s no surprise. I’ve written before about a similar decline in spending in Kansas.

Nor is it a surprise that tuition has risen as states have reduced their support of higher education. (More about that shortly.) It is interesting, though, to see details of how state cuts lead to increases in tuition and how education spending ranks among states’ priorities. Douglas Webber, an associate professor of economics at Temple University, explores those in an article in EdNext. Here are a few things he found:

  • Net tuition at a public four-year university doubled between 1997-98 and 2017-18 as states reduced per-student funding by 25 percent. Net tuition is what a student pays after grants and scholarships are figured in.
  • For every $1,000 per student that states cut from college and university budgets, tuition rises by $300. That translates into thousands of dollars coming directly from students’ pockets, or more likely, dollars added to students’ debt.
  • In total dollars, state funding for public higher education increased 13.5 percent between 1987 and 2015. Yes, it increased. The bigger issue is that during that same time, enrollment grew more than 57 percent. It’s a classic example of being asked to do more with less.

That growth in students especially taxes large state universities, which, Webber says, have taken in the vast majority of new students but “have long since exhausted their economies of scale.” That is, it is extremely difficult to add more students without charging more or reducing the quality of education.

Webber says that much of the money that might have gone into higher education is now going to Medicaid. He calls that one of the “tradeoffs facing state and local governments.” Here’s where state spending increased the most between 1987 and 2015, according to Webber’s analysis:

  • Public welfare (including Medicaid): up 200 percent
  • Health and hospitals: up 67 percent
  • Corrections: up 66 percent
  • Police and fire protection: up 59 percent
  • K-12 education: up 41 percent

Most certainly, rising health care costs are eating up more and more of states’ budgets. As Webber cautions, though, it’s impossible to say that an increase in one budget item “causes” a decrease in another. Nor must increases in one area lead to cuts in another. That’s a political decision. And Webber emphasizes that the figures are averages for all states. For instance, Vermont’s spending on public welfare increased three times more than Utah’s. Similarly, six states actually increased their per-student spending on higher education (Connecticut, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming) while Pennsylvania cut its contributions by 56 percent.

As Webber says, there isn’t just one story about how states spend their money. There are 50 stories. The statistics, though, reflect the challenges that state lawmakers confront each time they create budgets. It has become clear over the past two decades, though, that higher education isn’t high on that list of budget priorities.

Briefly …

The University of Missouri system will eliminate or merge 12 graduate programs and eliminate 474 jobs as part of a $100 million budget cut, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. You can see a list of the affected programs here. … The Department of Education expects to open bids this summer on development of $5 million in open educational resources, The Washington Post reports. Congress included that money in the 2018 federal budget. … Google has made Google Scholar easier to use on a smartphone. New mobile-friendly functions provide article previews and the ability to swipe through articles for reading. Google Scholar on mobile also allows you to save articles to a “My library” folder for later reading on a computer.