Tears welled in Jeanne Crane-Smith’s eyes as she told the story of a 20-something student who was struggling to select a book this spring at a sale at Kansas City Kansas Community College.
All books were a dollar, so it wasn’t the price that gave him pause. Besides, the student, who was working on his GED certificate, had a coupon to cover even that cost.
What he wanted was to choose the right book, Crane-Smith said. “It was important, he told me. It would be the first book he had ever owned.”
Crane-Smith has made it a mission to make sure all KCKCC students can afford books.
An effort to further literacy is what initially got Crane-Smith and students at the college’s Intercultural Center to spend hundreds of hours collecting, sorting and reselling books of all kinds as part of KCKCC’s My Shelf to Yours book program.
But now, to counter the soaring cost of textbooks, the book sale’s primary purpose has become raising money to help low-income students pay tuition and afford textbooks.
The college collects used and new books, and everything from children’s early-readers to popular novels and antique leather-bound volumes have come through the doors of the Intercultural Center’s lending library.
Some books are resold online through an eBay or Amazon account; others are sold at twice-a-year sales. The proceeds go to help needy students through scholarships, said Eva Bett, a student employee with My Shelf to Yours.
Students who buy books with a My Shelf to Yours textbook scholarship give the books back to the program when they are done with them. The books go into the lending library and are used to help other low-income students. When the book becomes outdated for campus use, it’s sold in the sale or to another school.
Since Crane-Smith started the program two years ago, students have received 341 small textbook scholarships and nearly $5,000 in tuition grants. Faculty, staff, students and community members have donated more than 21,700 books.
College leaders invested in the program because they recognized that “our students need the help,” said Brian Bode, a campus vice president. When Crane-Smith came to him in 2010 — she needed seed money from the school — Bode hadn’t heard of anything like it and wasn’t sure it would work.
But he knew it could be a huge help for a lot of the college’s 7,401 students, many of whom come from low-income families. More than 40 percent of students receive federal Pell grant aid. Many students are the first in their families to go to college; others are foreign students who pay out-of-state tuition and have little left for textbooks, which can cost hundreds of dollars.
And those costs are rising. In the past four years, the retail cost of college textbooks has jumped 22 percent, according to an analysis by Student Public Interest Research Groups. Students spend an average of $1,168 a year on textbooks.
That study and others have concluded that textbook prices can be the tipping point that keeps some students from completing college.
My Shelf to Yours is one of a variety of efforts that faculty and students on campuses across the country have developed to make textbook purchases more affordable. Some schools, including Northwest Missouri State in Maryville, have dabbled in doing away with textbooks in favor of less expensive e-books.
For now, Northwest Missouri State includes the cost of textbooks in tuition so students know up front the full amount they’re paying for a class.
But most savings efforts on campuses are student-initiated and involve some type of swap or rental arrangement that cuts out the campus bookstore. Selling books back to the bookstore can be a costly exchange for students, who might pay $200 for a new book, sell it back at the end of the semester for $80, and then see the bookstore resell it for $160.
“I’ve been teaching 20 years, and it is the most frequent complaint I get from students, more than cost of tuition: ‘I’m gonna use this book for three months and it is going to cost me how much?’ ” said Dan Johnson, a professor who teaches economics at Colorado College.
Employing student interns, Johnson has launched Bookcheetah, a website that allows students to find books they need and buy them cheap from other students.
“Sometimes a student is looking for a book and doesn’t know the student down the hall has it and is looking to sell it,” Johnson said. “We are like a matchmaking service.”
What makes the program at KCKCC different from most is that its roots are in promoting literacy. Students, some in the work-study program, are paid to operate My Shelf to Yours.
Ana Rameo, a pre-biology major, is student manager of the program. She calls the books that come in her “babies.” A testament to the program’s success, she said, is that when one student manager graduates, another is waiting to train for the position.
The book sales are open to the public. Books that are not sold are donated to early childcare or adult literacy programs.
“This program is a stroke of entrepreneurial genius,” Bode said. “But what it really demonstrates is faculty and staff willingness to spread the importance of reading.”