Required Access Granted textbook charges students for free web content

Kayla Solino, Assistant News Editor

Online and in-person sections of The University of Alabama’s introduction to women’s studies class charged students for required McGraw-Hill Connect textbook and courseware access despite the contents simply being links to content otherwise freely available to students.  

After obtaining the 105 course links offered for all 12 modules within the introduction to women’s studies courseware, an analysis of the content by The Crimson White revealed 97% of the linked content were freely accessible videos, websites, news articles, podcasts and PDF files. The other 3% were articles accessible via the UA library database. The online textbook is housed on the McGraw-Hill Connect platform. 

The $95 book purchase, which appeared as a $96.80 charge on student accounts last fall, includes access to readings and module assignments on the  Connect website. The book cost has since risen —now listed at $99.08 on the SupeStore website since the Spring 2023 semester.


The Course and Content  

A syllabus for an online section of introduction to women’s studies, WS 200, stated the McGraw-Hill text was required through the Access Granted Program, a course materials management system designed to offer online access to courseware immediately to those in the class. Course materials are accessed through Blackboard at the start of a class.  

The syllabus lists the course material as “(MCKNIGHT/CONNECT FOR CUSTOM INTRO TO WS).” Another syllabus for an in-person section of the same class shows the same. 

Twenty-five of the 105 links were free videos from platforms like YouTube and TED Talk, such as a video about personal feminism included in module three. Forty-two of the linked content items were online articles from outlets such as or Teen Vogue.  Five of the linked articles were from The New York Times website, which is paywalled. The syllabus lists no instructions for how to utilize the University’s ProQuest login to access NYT content.  

Nine of the featured links were Huffington Post articles. Some articles and videos, like those housed on Kanopy or research databases, are not free to the general public but are accessible to students through the UA Libraries 

CW / Bhavana Ravala

The textbook of linked content is published by McGraw-Hill through a “custom course” option offered by the platform. An anonymous College of Arts and Sciences professor told The CW that Laura Reynolds, a McGraw-Hill executive learning technology representative based in Birmingham, Alabama, was in contact with the professor’s department in March 2022 to potentially develop a similar textbook. 

Reynolds contacted the professor to meet, highlighting that she could tailor items such as total price and desired royalty.    

“We can talk through your needs for course materials, royalty and end price point tomorrow,” she wrote.  

When The CW contacted Reynolds, she directed The CW to Tyler Reed, McGraw-Hill’s senior director of communications. Reed responded on Feb. 23. Reed did not answer specific questions, but said schools want “curated content.” 

McGraw-Hill works with many institutions, including UA, to create customized digital course materials that utilize institution/instructor-created or curated content on our Connect platform,” Reed said. “[It] helps ensure for the University a consistent experience across many sections of the courses – with functionality that Blackboard by itself can’t provide.”  

The professor met with a McGraw-Hill representative to discuss courseware options and create a report for his department. The professor said the WS 200 courseware was being advertised as an example model, and that the gender and race studies’ department received $10 in royalties for every e-textbook purchased. Reed did not confirm the $10 royalty amount, or the portion of profit McGraw-Hill takes from the deal.  

According to the University, this past fall, 1,091 students enrolled in WS 200 online and 1,534 students enrolled in an in-person section. Based upon the $10 royalty and class enrollment, the gender and race studies department profited $26,250 off the courseware, and the book would have generated $254,100 in total sales revenue last semester. Total profits are split between the gender and race studies department, McGraw-Hill and the University, though the exact percentage delegated to each is unknown.  

According to the Education Data Initiative, the average cost of a college textbook is $105.37. The University did not respond to a request to provide the average cost of a textbook at the University. 

Over the last year, the cost-per-student of e-textbooks increased 36.8% and over the last 10 years, student spending on e-textbooks increased by 156%. A reported 11% of colleges and universities “make purchasing e-books and digital course materials compulsory with inclusive access agreements or contracts with publishers,” such as McGraw-Hill and Access Granted, per the Education Data Initiative. 

The anonymous arts and sciences professor sent an email on March 22 to other department members discussing what Reynolds shared about the McGraw-Hill program. The subject line read “Report on Generating Revenue from Custom e-texts.”  

The professor noted that the custom design of the textbook makes it impossible for students to purchase it elsewhere, or to purchase a used version. He said the gender and race studies’ textbook included a set of “custom-designed exercises” and a list of readings “from other authors” accessed through McGraw-Hill.  

He also wrote that McGraw-Hill can work with departments and faculty to give them the desired royalty fee up front and determine the overall price of the book based on the amount of McGraw-Hill content used and the fee for Connect.  

The professor’s department did not end up utilizing the system. 

“That [projected] amount of [royalty] money is enormous for a department [the size of gender and race studies],” the professor told The CW.

The professor said departments already receive a “few dollars” for course fees per each student enrolled in a course within a specific department as well as an allotted travel allowance for faculty.  

As of Spring 2023, Reynolds was in contact with the professor again. The professor shared another email communication with The CW on Jan 25. In the email, Reynolds encouraged the professor to consider a “custom product.”  

Reynolds detailed that for a hypothetical custom product to be “eligible for a royalty” there “just” needs to be “some author-original material.” Reynolds said “author-original material” does not mean that the department must “create the book,” noting that departments “can use any of ours [McGraw-Hill’s content] or pull chapters from any/all or the videos for all topics.” Reynolds wrote that most custom products utilize McGraw-Hill materials and “just add some of their own materials.” 

Department of Gender and Race Studies Chair and political science professor Utz McKnight said the current iteration of the book had been utilized “for about five years.”  

Within the Connect website, the textbook lists gender and race studies assistant professor Elizabeth McKnight, Utz McKnight’s wife, as its author. Utz McKnight said his wife is listed as the author because a point of contact is necessary, and “no one person” writes the content for the book. He said Elizabeth McKnight has no content in the book and receives no individual profit from it, as all the money goes back to the Department of Gender and Race Studies. 

McGraw-Hill is the partner for this textbook because it was the least expensive and most flexible option for the service, according to Utz McKnight. He said the online content in the book was chosen to keep it current. 

“The course has to be relevant to today. And …  if you’re not using YouTube, and things like that …  you know that it’s hard right now, and it’s been proven true with COVID because people are online. It’s really hard to say here’s a book, and this one book will be everything or here are 20 books. And so, by going online like that it gives us access to things that otherwise we couldn’t have the students look at,” McKnight said.  

While McKnight said he knows delivering the textbook through Access Granted limits students’ options in purchasing it, he added the University decided to use Access Granted and he had no control over the decision. He said for his department, maintaining reasonable prices for students has always been a priority.  

“I’m sympathetic to people wanting just to opt out in principle. And if the UA system, the UA part [of the deal] became onerous, too expensive, that would be a problem for us. I don’t have any information about their job,” McKnight said. “I don’t know how much of that is accessible.” 

McKnight said the course uses a combination of Blackboard and McGraw-Hill Connect, but that part of the decision about the textbook was made because Blackboard could not handle the demand for the course or the capacity of the contents; previously, the course materials were fully housed in Blackboard. 

“Blackboard’s not a strong enough entity, as a software package … it’s just what you see,” McKnight said. McKnight emphasized uploading content such as PDFs to Blackboard can sometimes cause legal issues over copyright. McKnight said working with McGraw-Hill makes sense compared to Blackboard because McGraw-Hill can handle copyright concerns, as well as remove a workload off professors by building the courseware.    

The arts and sciences professor said he utilizes Blackboard frequently.  

“I can’t imagine that there’s anything in [the WS 200 book] that you couldn’t be doing in Blackboard, certainly linking to things,” he said. “It’s very clear from the textbook side they love it because there’s no used book market.”  

The professor suggested lowering the cost of the book and collecting a smaller royalty fee or making it accessible via Blackboard at no cost to students. 

In 2022, the University spent $267,207 on the Blackboard platform.  

“Blackboard can be used to link to any outside web content with ease and users can add these outside links anywhere there is a text editor in Blackboard.” Dorrill further explained that instructors “can choose any outside content they want” if the “content and its delivery follow privacy, copyright, and accessibility guidelines and best practices.”  

Mcknight explained the estimated $26,250 profit from the textbook is utilized directly within the department. Without the textbook royalties, the gender and race studies department would be requesting money from other areas of campus. 

“We would actually end up taking money from students. It would just [appear] invisible because a student might be taking money that otherwise would go to Onyx and other sorority stuff,” McKnight said. “It’s also not a lot of money in that in the context of how we’re talking about, it’s like [the equivalent of] one out-of-state tuition.”  

McKnight said a situation like this could be a “bitter” ultimatum, where the department faculty might decide to remove an online offering of the class altogether. He said the department reassesses the content and courseware offering every two years while keeping student expenses in mind. 


Automatic Payment  

Students enrolled in sections of WS 200 were required to purchase the online courseware provided by McGraw-Hill and the University automatically charges for the courseware onto the student financial accounts of those enrolled in the course.  

Students have until the add/drop deadline to “opt-out” of the Access Granted program. Following the deadline, the charge is placed on the financial accounts of students who have not opted out of the service. Upon opting out, students are left to find the courseware needed for their class.  

The Access Granted FAQ site states students don’t have to utilize Access Granted courseware. University spokesperson Shane Dorrill said all students can opt-out of the Access Granted program. 

Students received a SupeStore email reminder on Aug. 14, 2022 that they were enrolled in an Access Granted course for WS 200 for fall 2022.  

Students were informed that “although the materials [McGraw-Hill access for WS 200] are required to pass the class, [students] can opt out if [they] do not wish to participate in the program.” 

Since the custom textbook for WS 200 is unavailable elsewhere, students cannot realistically opt out of Access Granted without hinderances. If a student chose to “opt out” of the course materials, they would have no way to complete homework and quizzes.   

Nicole Allen, the director of open education for SPARC, a nonprofit “advocacy organization that supports systems for research and education that are open by default and equitable by design,” said the federal government only requires universities to provide an “opt-out” option for programs like Access Granted beginning in 2015, but does not stipulate any guidelines for requiring an alternative method for students to complete assignments linked to those programs. 

Allen said the lack of federal laws surrounding automatic textbook billing creates a situation where students are paying to complete homework. She said the popularity of online courseware options is trending upward, citing a 2022 study from Bay View Analytics, which showed that about two-thirds of faculty members required online homework, up more than 20% from before the pandemic.   

“I do want to be clear. … The problem is with the textbook industry, not faculty. It is important for faculty to be able to choose the materials they believe are best for students, and that includes many kinds of tools. The problem is that bundling online homework into a digital textbook fee that is supposed to be optional is simply unfair for students,” Allen said.  

Allen said the textbook industry has been taking advantage of students as a captive market for years, citing tactics such as inflating the prices of print books, undercutting the resale value of used copies and programs such as Access Granted.  

McKnight confirmed that class discussions are hosted on the Blackboard platform for the course, but quizzes and individual questions affiliated with the book’s modules only exist on McGraw-Hill Connect.  


Policies & Law 

Textbooks and courseware materials for classes aren’t handled by anybody and are only designated by the instructing professor. Per the Faculty Handbook, the selected courseware must be sent to the University Supply Store, either by the department or the individual professor to make sure content complies with state and federal law as well as “ensure that the University will make available all of the necessary course materials for students.”  

The only instance where a textbook or course materials would be sent to a textbook selection committee is when a faculty member wants to use a “textbook, lab manual, computer software or other materials from which the faculty member or any person or business associated with the faculty member’s family obtains direct financial gain,” per the Alabama Ethics Act of 1995 as outlined in the Faculty Handbook.  

University policy “requires approval by a textbook selection committee,” in this situation and notes “individual academic units are responsible for developing procedures for selecting textbooks,” per the Faculty Handbook. 

As outlined by the Faculty Handbook and the Office of Academic Affairs website, the committee is responsible for “consider[ing] the appropriateness of the materials.”  

Dorrill did not confirm if the WS 200 courseware underwent approval by a committee or who was responsible for the process of creating the courseware. Though, per University policy, since neither Elizabeth nor Utz McKnight directly benefits monetarily, the courseware does not need committee approval. 

Kayla Solino was enrolled in an online section of introduction to women’s studies during the spring 2022 semester. Photos and detailed information about the course contents were shared with The CW by a former contributing writer enrolled in the course during the fall 2022 semester.