Studymode and Textbooks: Fighting the System

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Graphic by Katie Bailey

I took a deep breath and entered the money-sucking, budget ruining bookstore that was The Hill—15 minutes before class started. I looked at my reflection on the mirrored pillars keeping the building standing. I really don’t like being here. The place was littered with overpriced UCI sweaters, keychains, and mugs. I go downstairs to find what I need.

The shelves looked the same as they always did: practically empty and devoid of an actual supply. I get my first book, used for only $8. Then I get my second, used for $15. This was good. My crumpled wallet wasn’t going to be as barren as I thought it would be. Then I turned around to see if they had the last book I needed. There it was, on sale for $200. Nope, the line was drawn. It was time to look up the UCI Textbook Exchange page on Facebook again.

But instead of finding a seller, I found a photo — a cease and desist letter from the University of California to some website named antexty.studymode.com. I knew Studymode. It was a self-funded organization dedicated to helping students — one of those websites that offered paid subscriptions in order to trade and see notes with others. But this was a new section of the site for textbooks, not notes. At first glance, it didn’t seem like anything special.  I clicked it out of a mix of curiosity, desperation, and spite. It’s clear the UCs didn’t like this website, and that meant I was bound to save money.

A pleasantly blue search bar popped up with a picture of a UCI campus building in the background, but that wasn’t important. The page itself said it was, “A textbook marketplace for students attending UCI.” The word “students” was larger, in bold, and underlined in green. Emphasis on students was always good.

I looked at the interface. Not only could I search the title, author and ISBN number of the book, but also the school departments and even the specific class numbers the book pertained to. But this wasn’t UCI exclusive. There were online markets for 15 schools throughout Southern California and further — from Cal State Sacramento to UCLA. My eyes widened. This was brilliant; I needed to find the man behind this. And so I did, after contacting one of the students who posted the link on the page.

His name is Ryan Heimpel, original creator of Studymode Texty and a 2013 graduate of San Diego State University. After a few back and forth e-mails regarding our schedules we finally managed to have a talk through  Skype. I started with something I was wondering ever since I found the site: how he got the motivation to come up with the idea in the first place. It was the classic tale of students vs inflated educations costs.

“I had a book that I paid $90 for. And at the end of the semester I sold it back to the bookstore, and they gave me $15. The following semester, when I was shopping for my other books, I saw it on the shelf, used for $65,” said Heimpel.

We spoke substantially about issues in the textbook industry; how there are always multiple editions for the sake of keeping students financially under their thumb. We also discussed how teachers who wrote textbooks often just compiled information from other textbooks only to receive profit on kickbacks. With the main villain being the school’s profitability established, I brought up the cease and desist letter from UCI, the major legal issue and threat that I and many other students saw.

Turns out our school wasn’t the only one. Heimpel and his team have already received five to date, he relayed with a smile through the screen.

“They’re a little bit threatened that something is growing on a grassroots movement by students,” Heimpel says. “We put the site out there. It’s really the students that are making it popular and doing all this.”

It’s obvious Heimpel cares about the crippling finances of the student population, being part of it himself only a few years ago. We both took our shots at the outrageously high prices of education, and the ridiculousness of how textbook prices have increased by 1,041% since 1977, according to NBC News.

Studymode Texty has only been active for about a year and a half. Even still, its popularity has been growing. Students have been sharing their respective school’s texty links everywhere on their various Facebook pages. Although textbooks are a rather niche market, Heimpel has high hopes for the site and its potential. Thousands of students using the website would mean thousands of student dollars saved, and not another unnecessary cent going to the bookstore.

“That’s a lot of money the schools are going to lose, which is unfortunate, but I’d rather see that money in the hands of students,” affirms Heimpel, laughing. “We pay enough money in tuition. At this point, I don’t care about taking money from them.”

Our conversation kept going, this time Heimpel asking me how much I’d spent on textbooks in my three years here. I gave a rough estimate of at least $1,000. Data collected by College Board in 2014 revealed that a typical U.S. college student paid an average of $1,200 on textbooks so I wasn’t off the mark. Heimpel’s face became shocked in awe, his brow furrowed. We agreed that there definitely needed to be a change in the way the textbook market worked, and ended our discussion there. It was back to finding the books I needed at a reasonable price. At least I had a much better method this time.

The website StartClass, dedicated to obtaining data on education, states that the national student loan debt in the U.S. is over one trillion dollars, and rising every year. Millions of us students are suffering from the barely affordable costs of a college education as it is. It’s inspiring to know there are people like Heimpel and his team at Studymode helping out in major strides.

We’ve been the underdogs in this fight for the past 40 years or so. Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way — besides having free tuition and a lower cost of textbooks that is.

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