Elizabeth S. Bambacus, Virginia Commonwealth University
On average, college students are expected to spend almost $1,300 per year on textbooks (College Board, 2015). Shocking to the layperson, this information will not surprise academic advisors, for we share in our students’ joys, heartbreaks, triumphs, and, quite often, the trauma of their financial roadblocks. With textbooks costing the same price as, say, car insurance, a couple months of rent, or several months of food, students are forced to choose between necessities or books. Book rentals are less expensive, but can still cost upwards of $100 each. Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are already climbing uphill to succeed in college, and the unaffordable cost of textbooks exponentially steepens the slope. Academic advisors pride ourselves on problem solving, but there are some things that we just cannot fix. And it is torture.
I chose my career in academic advising for the same reasons many of us did: not only because we loved higher education so much that we never wanted to leave, but also because we needed a career that gave us purpose, one in which we saw that we were making a difference. There is plenty about my job that fulfills me, like the moment when a student finally clicks with a major, finds focus just in time to secure a C, or addresses a mental health issue and begins to thrive. I worked for lawyers during graduate school and am acutely aware that not every job out there provides such fulfillment. The unglorified side of advising, however, is that its frustrations can keep us up at night, like a student’s inability to study purely because of financial reasons.
Last spring I reflected on how advising students who are unable to buy textbooks is like watching a freight train speed toward a car stalled on the tracks. Without the textbooks to help them forward, students would certainly be crushed by the unrelenting pace of academia. All I had previously thought to do was sympathetically tell them to check the library, to ask their professor for an extra copy, or to look for private loans to pay off when their financial aid eventually came in. It was like getting out of my well-running car and telling the stalled driver to walk to the nearest gas station for assistance. I was empathizing but not doing. How many other challenges, I thought—already knowing the answer—must college students overcome to succeed? College is stressful: developmentally, students are experiencing a major life stage that includes significant change and increased responsibilities (Gutter & Copur, 2011). If I could help relieve just this one burden, how far away from the oncoming train could the student get? I began to brainstorm; there had to be something I could do.
Most academic libraries have reserve services where students can check out books for a limited amount of time (e.g., two hours). To my relief, so did my university. The problem was, though, that textbook availability is at the discretion of the faculty—they must provide the book, and many do not. Because of the short lifespan of textbooks, the library could not spare any financial resources toward maintaining reserves. The division that houses academic advising, however, targets retention—a keyword advisors know to drop when searching for funding. I thought that perhaps I could convince administrators that by purchasing the textbooks of the most highly attended first-year and general education courses we would be giving students a fighting chance of passing their classes and graduating. My colleagues’ enthusiasm told me I was on to something.
To my surprise, after persistently advocating the importance of this project, I was granted permission to purchase used textbooks from Amazon. Understandably, in our current climate of budget cuts, this was a one-time purchase; the department will not be able to grant me $1,200 a year to fund the library’s reserves. Yes, it is a short-term win to a long-term problem, but here is why I still feel victorious. Year after year I did not have an immediate, helpful answer when students told me they failed their first test because they lacked the book. I would suggest that they borrow a friend’s book to make copies, but much like my other recommendations, the student had to rely on the availability of yet another person. This year was different. The first time someone told me she was still waiting for financial aid to disburse her reimbursement so she could buy books, I was able to tell her that her books were available in the library. Relief washed over her face. I was overjoyed and, in that moment, funding for next year did not matter. I was renewed and looking forward to expanding the availability of books. Having once felt defeated, I was now up for the challenge.
Thinking creatively about how to help students in ways other than tackling issues beyond my control has reenergized me. In my early advising days, I feared that I would exhaust my empathy—that my 599th motivationally challenged student would receive my apathetic referrals instead of an enthusiastic pep talk I would have to tone down to avoid overwhelming him. I did not expect to feel jaded toward a system under which I felt powerless. Fortunately, I have maintained my passion for advising, though it has taken on a different shape. My challenge to advisors who are approaching burnout from a sense of helplessness is to think outside of the traditional advising toolbox for creative ways to help students overcome powerful obstacles. Even tiny triumphs can reignite faltering job satisfaction, because though we cannot solve every problem, we can reduce the severity of the struggle. When confronted with the textbook deficit, I had a choice to make: either burn out from the frustration of helplessly watching academically talented, low-income students crumble under the weight of financial stressors, or do something that might lift a fraction of the load. I chose the latter.
Elizabeth S. Bambacus
Senior Academic Advisor
University Academic Advising
Division of Strategic Enrollment Management
Virginia Commonwealth University
College Board. (2015).Average Estimated Undergraduate Budgets, 2015-2016. Trends in higher education. Retrieved from http://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/average-estimated-undergraduate-budgets-2015-16
Gutter, M., & Copur, Z. (2011). Financial behaviors and financial well-being of college students:Evidence from a national survey. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 32(4), 699-714.
Cite this article using APA style as: Bambacus, E.S. (2016, March). Buy the book: Reflections on the effect of student advocacy on career longevity. Academic Advising Today, 39(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]