Columbia College, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Barnard are rated among the top 20 colleges that are most accessible for students from socioeconomically diverse backgrounds. Despite this, students have repeatedly cited the high costs of their textbooks—a basic requirement for most courses— as a barrier in their daily academic lives.
This semester, Butler Library created an exclusive circulation of textbooks for first-generation low-income students to lighten that burden. This effort, led by the Columbia First-Generation Low-Income Partnership, follows six years of student organizing for a collection of textbooks for FLI students.
FLIP founded the book lending project in 2014. The student advocacy group’s collection—which consisted entirely of student donations—was first housed in a residence hall closet, before transitioning to Butler’s fourth-floor shelves in spring 2015 and expanding into the Milstein Center for Teaching and Learning in fall 2018. Over summer 2019, Butler staff relocated the collection to a new area of the fourth-floor to permit future growth beyond the previous 1,000 book capacity.
Student Financial Services states that textbook expenses are factored into the cost of attendance and covered by need-based financial aid. However, grants from Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science do not account for unbilled expenses, placing the burden on students and their families to pay the difference between the total cost of attendance and the net cost. Only the participants in the New York State Higher Education Opportunity Program receive textbook stipends, leaving all other financial aid recipients to independently source funding.
Students at the School of General Studies, where students are almost twice as likely to be Pell Grant recipients compared to Columbia College and SEAS, do not receive textbook grants, a consequence of the school’s limited financial aid.
During the spring 2019 semester, FLIP and Columbia University Libraries embarked on an official partnership, with the lending collection entering into the library’s official circulation this semester. Before the collection entered the circulation system, FLIP had no means to track demand for particular course materials or identify gaps in their collection. The new circulation data will allow for a deeper understanding of FLI student needs, enabling the library to stock targeted books.
Library employees volunteered over the winter break to catalog the collection, which consists partly of previous donations, on the Columbia Libraries Catalog, CLIO. Ana Perez, BC ’21, became involved with FLIP as a first-year and now serves as the student employee for Butler’s FLIP Lending Library, complementing a similar position that had already existed for Barnard’s FLIP collection.
“Now [FLI students] can check on CLIO, and everything from Barnard’s side and Butler’s side is on there. Both sides are working together so it’s not a disjoint system … it’s a combined thing through FLIP,” Perez said. “It has taken a while because actually we had asked [Butler] before if they could put the books into circulation and each time it was no, no, no, no … so this has been moving forward since last spring.”
While FLIP’s collection sees a high concentration of Core Curriculum texts and standard science, technology, engineering, and mathematics textbooks, humanities and social science courses often have more niche list of required texts. In addition, some courses require textbooks with access codes to online companions or assignments, an additional expense not covered by FLIP’s resources.
“I’m a history major so the lending library before when I have tried to use it hasn’t been the most helpful to me because a lot of professors assign really specific books that not everyone is going to use,” current FLIP lending chair Citlalli Contreras-Sandoval, CC ’21, said. “That is the thing that I’m definitely going to look into—making sure that [the library] is a good resource for STEM and humanities.”
Ian Beilin, the Humanities Research Services Librarian at Butler, plans to use the donations’ circulation records to monitor the high-demand classroom materials. Until FLIP’s stocks were incorporated into Butler’s collection, FLIP relied on an “honor code” to distribute books.
“I would also want students to know that it's something the library is very committed to ensuring the future of and expanding,” Beilin said. “I think that’s one of the advantages of having the data is that you can anticipate what’s needed moving forward.”
To create a more standardized resource for textbook funding, Columbia College Student Council proposed a $600 tuition increase with an option to opt-out of paying the additional cost. The initiative was justified by the struggle of FLI students to afford textbooks, despite the efforts of the FLIP collections. However, the policy proposal received criticism for keeping textbook costs as a student responsibility instead of holding the University accountable for providing affordable alternatives.
While the FLIP library is open to all students, only FLI students who have submitted a form may check out books for the full semester. All others are restricted to a two-hour window. There is one unified form for both Columbia and Barnard students whose registration status remains active for the students’ entire undergraduate career. Looking to the future, Perez said she hopes to expand the collection through a grant FLIP received last year and future donations.
“We are always looking for feedback on just like what people think of our collection. … They can always reach out to FLIP … or our lending library,” Perez commented.