A used textbook seller is taking South Carolina's largest public technical college to federal court alleging it ran a "scam" on its own students by inking a deal with one of the country's leading textbook publishers.
Trident Technical College and President Mary Thornley misled students about textbook pricing and prevented them from shopping around for secondhand classroom materials, according to the lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Charleston.
The lawsuit comes as seismic shifts are restructuring the college textbook industry. Textbook prices could grow out of control in the long run if other colleges continue to sign such exclusive deals with publishers and edge out the secondhand market, according to the lawsuit.
"I think the bigger picture of what they're trying to do here is they're trying to eliminate competition, and once that happens they can charge whatever they want," said Jeremy Cucinella, regional manager of Virginia Pirate Corp., which owns Textbook Brokers in North Charleston.
Trident Tech spokesman David Hansen said Friday that the school had not yet been served with the lawsuit. He provided the following comment via email:
"Trident Technical College is currently working with three publishers — Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Cengage — to make digital course materials available to students. Like many other colleges in South Carolina and across the nation, we are making digital materials available in an effort to lower the cost of attending college for our students."
Textbook Brokers set up shop in a squat storefront with neon signs in 2010, within eyesight of Trident Tech's Rivers Avenue campus. The store usually does brisk business in August and January, when students flush with federal aid money start shopping around for deals on required textbooks.
In the fall 2018 semester, Trident Tech began tacking an automatic fee onto its students' tuition bills in 22 courses for limited-time access to digital textbooks from the textbook publisher Pearson.
Trident officials and textbook publishers have pitched the automatic textbook fee, known in the industry as "inclusive access," as a way to save students money. The publisher offers discounted rates through its contract with the college, and the college agrees to limit the markup on those sales through its on-campus bookstore.
In its contract with Pearson, Trident committed to providing at least 12,291 digital enrollments in the 2019 calendar year. If Trident falls short of that quota, Pearson has the contractual right to charge full price for the course materials.
According to U.S. Department of Education regulations, Trident has to give students the choice of opting out of the automatic textbook fee and buying textbooks elsewhere. But in the lawsuit, Textbook Brokers' owner alleges the college put up barriers to students who wanted to shop around.
Trident advertised the inclusive access materials are being offered at "the lowest possible price" and listed the purchase price as $0 for some inclusive-access books on its campus bookstore website, misleading students about the actual costs since they are built into tuition, according to screenshots and documents attached to the lawsuit.
The used bookstore used the Freedom of Information Act to dig into emails among professors, college administrators and Pearson representatives. They found that in classes where students needed access to Pearson's MyLabsPlus platform to complete assignments, there was effectively no way to opt out of "inclusive access" and purchase digital access codes elsewhere.
As a result, Textbook Brokers "lost hundreds of actual and prospective customers during both the Fall 2018 and Spring 2019 semester," the lawsuit states. The lawsuit claims Trident violated the S.C. Unfair Trade Practices Act and engaged in unfair business deals. The lawsuit seeks financial damages and legal fees in a jury trial.
Three titans of the American textbook industry — Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Cengage — have been promoting "inclusive access" deals at colleges as a way to recoup revenues lost during the switch from print to digital texts, according to a 2017 Inside Higher Ed article. Cucinella said his company has felt the impact at its stores situated near two-year technical colleges in the Southeastern U.S.
"The publishers aren’t stupid. They targeted these community colleges where you have student populations that aren’t going to be as affluent as at four-year schools. ... The program is extremely confusing and causes people to get frustrated," Cucinella said.
Cucinella said he believes Virginia Pirate Corp. is the first textbook dealer to challenge the fairness of inclusive access contracts in court. The Arkansas-based company, named for its first two locations in Virginia and near Eastern Carolina University (whose mascot is the Pirates), owns 16 used textbook stores across the Southeast.