Privatizing bookstore will hurt students

Originally published May 2012 in The Southwestern Sun

Just when it seemed like things could not get any tougher for students facing higher fees, fewer classes and loss of access to our own universities, Southwestern College may throw the book at us. Our own books.

A very different chapter in SWC’s history will unfold if the administration decides to privatize the bookstore and lease it to an outside company. While the bookstore has consistently been profitable and for years subsidized our bedraggled cafeteria, last year it showed a rare splash of red ink. A cash-strapped administration has discussed getting out of the bookstore business and leasing the building to a multinational corporation.

Bad idea. Privatized bookstores are detrimental to students, especially in low-income communities like Southwestern’s. Corporate-run bookstores help colleges by paying a lease fee, but students pay the real cost. Commercial bookstores markup is generally 20 to 40 percent higher than campus-run shops. Textbook prices will rise sharply and they are already way too expensive. In fact, books are the number one expense for most students.

Orange Coast College (OCC) in Costa Mesa privatized its bookstore in 2003, leasing it to Barnes & Noble College Booksellers. Under private operation the bookstore was criticized for inflated textbook prices, and for never ordering enough inventory for a semester. Since then, OCC outsourced its bookstore to another private company, Follett Higher Education Group, which has continued the decline in revenue and service.

Along with higher prices, students will undergo a completely different atmosphere once stepping through the sliding doors. No longer will students be greeted by friendly student workers empathetic with their college experience. That will be replaced by a stark-faced retail atmosphere where profits are the bottom line. Students will simply become wallets on legs.

At Orange Coast the bookstore brought in new management in 2010, hiring a former manager of Saks Fifth Avenue who had a background in merchandising and mall management. That ought to tell students what they need to know. Where have you gone, Patti Larken? A college turns its lonely eyes to you. Larken, a multi-talented manager, understood the need to balance viability with service to students, but she is no longer in charge.

If privatization occurs, the bookstore will not have the physical capacity to stock all the products a company will want to sell. At other colleges that leased out their bookstores, renovation followed. That means the bookstore will get shut down for reconstruction, leaving students in quick need of a Scantron or highlighter high and dry.

If Southwestern College’s administration is concerned with the losses incurred by the bookstore, there are plenty of alternative methods they should be considering instead. Bringing back Larken is one. Expanding the textbook rental program is another. This spring, only 11 courses had textbooks available. If the bookstore wants its rental program to show better results, it needs to offer a better selection. Rental programs at other colleges are hugely successful, and SWC’s could be if it is modeled after online services that are accessible, fast and less expensive. SDSU’s rental program offers several incentives when renting books, including discount coupons for their campus store, upon return of rented books.

Our world is changing, our bookstore needs to change with it or it will fall behind. (Instructors can help by selecting less expensive texts or ones that are available used or by looking into digital textbooks more available every semester). Southwestern College exists to serve this community by helping students find success. More expensive textbooks are not helpful to students or the entire educational system. We urge our college leadership not to take the easy way out and turn over our bookstore to profiteers, however tempting that may be. None of us can afford that.