There's a laundry list of students' dreads at the beginning of the semester (the return of the all-nighter, no more home cooking), but one thing's at the top of the list: purchasing textbooks. Professors split fairly evenly between ordering books through the Penn Bookstore (managed by Barnes & Noble) and the independent Penn Book Center. The distinction between the two outlets seems, on the surface, to be a sort of "David versus Goliath," corporate leviathan versus the little guy scenario.
Though this comparison may hold up on the surface, a look at whom this policy affects breaks down the comparison. When students are required to purchase textbooks from the Penn Book Center, they lose the ability to whip out their PennCards and say the magic words: "Bursar, please."
Although that phrase is often associated with students sneaking iPods off their parents, bursar accounts are linked to Student Financial Services accounts, and many students' bursar balances are paid via scholarships sent directly to the school and dumped into those accounts. Engineering and Wharton sophomore Tyler Ernst pays via bursar because it's included in his financial-aid package. His writing seminar last year, though, required books which had all been ordered through the Penn Book Center. "I refused to purchase them when I couldn't use financial aid to cover them. I couldn't afford them at all, so I either bought them off of a friend for a lot cheaper or I just didn't use them."
Tyler's experience is - pardon the pun - a textbook example of the problem with the logic of many Penn professors. Businesses such as the Penn Book Center should be able to establish a relationship with SFS so that Penn students can bursar textbooks ordered through them. Michael Merritt, senior director for administrative support at SFS, said that Penn would be willing to set up such an arrangement.
According to Merritt, the Penn Book Center has approached Penn in the past regarding just such a relationship. The problem, of course, was money. "There was a problem if the student didn't pay [Student Financial Services]. The Penn Book Center wouldn't get the revenue. If they pay with a credit card, cash or check, they would get the revenue," Merritt said. Penn Book Center was unwilling to enter into an agreement in which they were not absolutely guaranteed funding for a purchase, he said.
Michael Row, owner of the Penn Book Center, provided a different story. "We approach [the University] every summer," Row said. "What they told me was that it was just a Penn system and they don't allow institutions outside of Penn to use it. We're independent." He went on to say that the store "would do anything to get access to that, because it's important for people who don't have credit cards or bank accounts but do have bursar."
After interviewing both sources, it became clear that there is a willingness to work out some sort of system on both sides. Perhaps miscommunication is to blame for stalling progress on this issue. Bringing Penn Book Center into the fold can only mean good things for students, and I sincerely hope that it happens soon.
Professors should not have to make the choice between helping out a struggling bookstore and helping out struggling students. Their support is often crucial to keeping independent booksellers afloat. When asked why she orders textbooks through House of Our Own bookstore, professor Ellen Kennedy said, "The book and publishing business has become really cut-throat, and House of Our Own is a small, family-owned, local business." Wonderful as that is, though, students who cannot afford the books without financial aid ultimately come out on bottom.
As the middleman, Penn can work out a system that allows professors to continue aiding them while also preserving students' ability to use SFS to their advantage in purchasing textbooks. Although I'm graduating in May and wouldn't benefit directly from a resolution, I hope an agreement between all parties can be reached.
Dennie Zastrow is a College senior from Wilson, NY. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.Comments powered by Disqus
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