Equitable access programs offer a comprehensive approach to looking at the entire cost-of attending needs of a student.

Equitable access can improve course completion and student success

Equitable access programs offer a comprehensive approach to looking at the entire cost-of attending needs of a student

Key points:

  • Institutions that implement equitable access programs are helping students overcome those barriers
  • Equitable access programs can boost retention and student success

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” –Niccolo Machiavell

Course completion and student success percentages are significantly increased at higher education institutions that have introduced Equitable Access (EA) programs, especially two-year institutions. The establishment of an EA program means every student will have the same opportunity and tools needed for success. The unique financial challenges faced by every student act as barriers to student success and retention.

Institutions that implement EA programs are designing systems to overcome those barriers. EA is about improving course materials access, improving course completion and success rates, creating individualized paths to personalized learning, facilitating student success, and designing retention and graduation

If you’re not familiar with equitable access, it’s a tuition and fees billing model that
charges a flat-rate fee per credit hour or per term. EA is considered an institutional charge paid by all students under Title IV financial aid regulations. Charged at the time of student registration, it can provide students with all required physical and digital course materials, all required course supplies, perhaps food to focus on learning, fuel to get to class, housing, technology to access learning, and many other resources that facilitate equity between students.

Course materials models

The new order of things is EA, which is creating a paradigm shift in institutional thinking about course materials. We need to question the long-held belief that the cost of course materials is the barrier to student success. Data from Three Rivers College (TRC) and new research shows that not providing 100 percent access through an EA model, and student opt-out of an EA model, is a greater barrier to student success than the cost of course materials.

There are four primary models used by institutions to provide access to course materials to students.

The Purchase Model has been the traditional way students have obtained their course materials in the past. This method requires students to find and purchase course materials á la carte after registration, creating a cost barrier the students must overcome. Rental can be part of this model at a lower cost, but the lower cost does not mean no cost, so it can still create a financial barrier.

Many surveys on textbook costs reveal that a vast majority of students find textbook
costs to be a barrier to their success. These surveys also show that most students at institutions of higher learning have either not purchased textbooks because of cost, or delayed purchasing textbooks because of cost. Additionally, these surveys find that most students feel they would do better in the class if all required course materials were accessible on the first day of class. Cost is a barrier to course materials access in the purchase model.

The Open Educational Resources (OER) Model is thought to be a solution to the
problems stemming from the purchase model, by facilitating course materials access through no-cost or low-cost course materials. Some institutions have turned to OER to solve class-level course material cost issues. Select institutions have even created entire curriculums around zero-textbook-cost degree programs, called Z-Degree. However, instead of the faculty simply choosing the best materials for a course, it limits academic freedom for faculty by limiting choices to less costly materials.

If an OER model is integrated into enough classes by faculty, it can lower the overall EA flat-rate fee charged to students, but cost should not be the main consideration in choosing what materials are best suited for a course. Instead, it can be another course material option for faculty in the EA playbook. It can also play a strategic role in allowing institutions to persuade publishers to help control costs. EA is the vehicle and OER is the wheel, but together they can best move the student down the road to academic success.

The Inclusive Access (IA) Model is an institutional billing model that includes course
materials cost in tuition and fees at the course level. This model has variable costs to students at the time of registration, and in many cases is limited to digital course materials, but it can also include physical course materials purchase or rental, too, at a variable rate. IA is set up course by course at variable rates, so it requires constant vigilance to make sure the institution has the latest pricing built into the registration systems class by class. Opt-out is at the course level and is often provided by digital course materials billing providers, like RedShelf, VitalSource, or Willo Labs. However, easy-button digital opt-out is contrary to course completion and student success under this model, and there is too much focus on price in this model.

The Equitable Access (EA) Model is the game changer. EA is not just a different model to provide course materials, but a better model than the purchase model, OER model, or IA model. Only EA can provide 100 percent access to all digital and physical materials and course supplies on day one of class for all classes. Under an EA program, faculty can choose the best materials for a course, because both the á la carte and variable costs are removed as a barrier to access.

The cost of course materials at most institutions is 4 percent or less of the cost of attendance. Tuition and fees, room and board, transportation, and other attending costs are much higher. EA is creating a paradigm shift in institutional thinking around course materials. Under an EA program, course materials cost is absorbed into tuition and fees through a flat-rate fee per credit hour or per term at the time of registration. When all á la carte costs for course materials are removed, and course materials are accessed 100 percent on day one, then costs are no longer a barrier to course materials access.

If the billing method is an all-inclusive EA model, student success and retention
outcomes are improved. Research at select institutions providing 100 percent access through an EA model increased course completion rates by 15.58 percent and improved letter grade success rates over those students that chose to opt-out.

It turns out that institutions that want to increase course completion and increase
student success must develop strategies for limiting opt-out. Opt-out is a regulatory
requirement under Title IV, therefore opt-out is a student choice, but statistically it is not a good choice for improving course completion and student success. Opt-out should not be an easy out provided by a third-party digital vendor. Instead, it should require academic counseling provided by the institution fully engaged in the academic success of each student. Opt-out is a bad choice, made by some students not fully informed about the possible academic consequences of their decisions, since opted-out students are at a greater risk of not completing a course and of not achieving the same letter grade success; this risk is greater for underrepresented student populations. More than 50 percent of the students who opt out are not acquiring all required course materials somewhere else, so they do not have the tools needed for course completion success.

After six semesters of offering EA at TRC, 112,826 student credit hours were completed, and with a 11,659 total headcount at census, we had just one visiting student taking three hours opt out. EA is about convenience. When access is increased to 100 percent when registration opens, and convenience is increased through scan-and-go for physical course materials and login-and-learn for digital course materials, with free shipping to homes, then course materials cost is no longer a focus of concern for students.

At TRC, students must be registered for a class before they can order or pick up course materials. Orders are canceled for students who are not registered, and an email is sent to the student and the director of enrollment services so steps can be taken to get the student registered. TRC requires the return of most physical course materials at the end of each semester, except for nursing, which requires the return of materials only if the student does not remain enrolled and graduate from the nursing program.

Most schools with an EA program use a digital-first format approach, meaning if course materials are available digitally, then that is what students are offered instead of a print option. According to Faculty Watch 2022, more than 90 percent of faculty have a format preference and more than 50 percent of faculty opposed the idea of the institution or college store choosing the format for them.

At TRC, the faculty choose both the course materials and format of the course materials, with 30 percent digital and 70 percent physical. Our EA program is flexible enough to allow physical and digital plus course supplies, too. A digital-first strategy would eliminate the time required by students to acquire and return physical course materials and the time needed by staff at the college to manage those materials. On the other hand, digital-first means the college is more tied in with the publishers, and more limited to using digital channels and requiring students to have the technology to access and utilize those materials. Given TRC is a two-year school, flexibility in offering EA in physical, digital, and supplies like lab kits and uniforms is critical to
student success.

Food and fuel

All students need food to focus on learning, and some students living off campus need
fuel to get to class. Food insecurity issues for college students is a well-documented fact through many studies. It is estimated that 30 percent of all college students have experienced food insecurity at some point during their college careers, with 38 percent of students at two-year institutions and 29 percent at four-year experiencing food insecurity in the previous 30 days. If institutions are accepting students for admission, they need to develop procedures so students can pay for tuition and fees, establish an EA program to access course materials, and have solutions to address food insecurity issues throughout the semester.

Many colleges are establishing food pantries, and Three Rivers College has a food pantry on campus. Another solution used on the TRC campus is a Meal Plan Card. The card allows students on financial aid to access their aid 30 days prior to the payout of that aid. With this card, they can purchase food and fuel at 24 local restaurants, grocery stores, and fuel stations. We also provide Athlete Meal Plan Cards for scholarship athletes. Another solution would be to add a certain number of food or fuel scholarships per semester under an EA program.


In college, homelessness is real. It is estimated that 17 percent of community college students experienced homelessness in the prior year. From sleeping in cars to friends’ couches, and skimping on other bills, many students are facing hard choices as to what they can afford today and give up tomorrow, from textbooks to food, fuel, housing, or technology. At Three Rivers College, housing is part of athletic scholarships, and other schools have used vouchers for housing off campus to help promote equity among students.


The digital divide among college students became more apparent during the 2020
COVID-19 emergency shift to online learning. Students were challenged to afford both a computer and Internet access. It is estimated that between 16 to 19 percent of college students on average had technology barriers and up to 30 percent of lower-income students.

Three Rivers College has an affordable laptop rental program, and 1.7 percent of students rented a laptop for spring semester 2022. Like course materials, TRC considers a laptop an essential item for student success, so students may check out a computer if they need one.

This program can be woven into an EA program, too, or tied to a class so that everyone who registers and attends the class can have access to a laptop to use for the semester or perhaps while enrolled in college.

A new order of things

EA is a new order of things, a comprehensive approach to looking at the entire cost-of attending needs of a student. When students are not successful and retained by an institution, it is because one or more of the components that fuel student success and retention has failed, such as lack of access to required course materials, food insecurity or transportation issues, homelessness, or technology barriers to learning.

Sometimes life gets in the way of student success, so institutions must design their
institutional practices around addressing the holistic, comprehensive needs of students, while creating individualized paths to personal learning, student success, and retention.

10 best practices for an Equitable Access Program

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