Books+: The San Bernardino Community College District Day-One Access Story

August 04, 2023

San Bernardino Community College launched Books+, covering the cost of course materials for nearly 20,000 students. The results speak to the potential of Equitable Access programs to improve student outcomes, increase retention, and reduce barriers to achievement. 

By Diana Z. Rodriguez, Chancellor, San Bernardino Community College District

When I think back to the days before we launched our campus-wide Equitable Access model Books+, and what led us to where we are today, I think about a student named Santiago.

There’s an image that’s etched in my memory from a few years back when Santiago spoke at a San Bernardino Community College District board meeting. He held up a math book and said: “This book cost me $400, for one class for one semester. I have to decide if I’m going to purchase this book and be successful in my classes or make my car payment—or pay my electric bill.” He was 19 years old, and his financial contributions are critical to supporting his family, a common scenario for San Bernardino students.

Santiago’s words sat with me for years. Students shouldn’t have to choose between buying a textbook and paying a utility bill or rent. And Santiago’s story is just one of many. For me, this is an issue of equity. About 90% of our students at San Bernardino Community College District are Pell Grant-eligible. How could we help these students? How do we reduce these barriers to degree attainment? How do we get books in their hands?

As we were starting to think through the possibilities for a solution, COVID-19 hit, and the situation got even worse. The California Student Aid Commission put out a report that said seven out of ten community college students lost some or all of their income during the pandemic. Even after the pandemic, the numbers didn’t get much better. We had to do something.

So, we started talking to Follett—we wanted to know what course material models would help us cover or significantly reduce the cost of textbooks for our students. Our Board of Trustees had set goals to position San Bernardino as an academic leader in the region, which included launching DEIA initiatives (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Racism) and finding new ways to drive student success, all while remaining fiscally responsible. When we took a look at Equitable Access, it touched every single one of those goals.

Through this program, we were able to provide all our students, regardless of income level, field of study, or credits taken, the books and materials they needed to succeed, free of charge. No nominal fee, no surprises. We learned that this program would be the first of its kind for a California community college—no other districts had committed to covering textbook costs for every single student. We called our new program Books+.

We put out a campaign for our entire region that talked about this free program for course materials and textbooks. We put up billboards and flyers, we even did some door-knocking. We wanted to send the message clearly to current and prospective students: We know some of you have stopped out—or are thinking about stopping out. We want to see you on our campuses, or in our virtual classrooms—we want you to enroll. 

As part of that campaign, we put out materials in English and Spanish. Upwards of 70% of our student population are Latinx, and the decision-makers in many of the households are the parents whose primary language is Spanish. We wanted to be as inclusive and get the word out as far as possible.

And by the first day of class, we were able to get books into every student’s hands, something we are incredibly proud of.

Since 2021, we’ve implemented Books Plus in 87 academic disciplines, 658 courses, and over 4,100 course sections. This has allowed students to avoid having to make hard decisions between caring for themselves and their families and buying course materials.

Notably, the students from Fall 2021 to Fall 2022 have passed over 55,500 courses with letter grade C or better. That means they’re not only completing their course work—they’re staying on track to complete their degrees with us. This is an incredible achievement for our students that can at least partially, if not totally, be attributed to our Books+ program.

People often ask me how the program caught on—how we created allies and supporters to launch and evolve Books+ successfully. I love telling them that our first allies were our student leaders—they were talking and texting with their peers and their faculty about how the program worked.

I had one student leader in my office who was so relieved that her books would be covered by the institution that she was in tears—she’d questioned whether she could afford to finish the final semester of her nursing program. By removing the burden of her textbook costs, the barriers to her success had been lifted.

To learn more about San Bernardino Community College District—and other Access programs across the country—watch a recording of a recent webinar here.