Why many Inver Hills students haven’t received textbooks this term

Inver Hills - Hamline 027
We're supposed to read what? (MPR Photo / Alex Friedrich)
It's not winter we're worried about. (Inver Hills Community College Bookstore's Photos Facebook page)

Glitches in Inver Hills Community College's move to online-only textbook sales left many students without books for the first two weeks of the semester, faculty and students say -- and some students still don't have all their materials.

Faculty have had to push back assignments and scale back on lab activities because students haven't had time to prepare. Students complain they're behind in their work and face quizzes they're not ready for.

Both groups say they've been scrambling to find alternate versions elsewhere -- on the web, in the library or used-book stores, or old editions that faculty members have in their offices.

Compounding the frustration, some students say, is that they were never told they had to order their books online.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR's budget year comes to a close on June 30. Help us close the gap by becoming a Sustainer today. When you make a recurring monthly gift, your gift will be matched by the MPR Member Fund for a whole year!

"I thought, 'Oh, I'll just go to the bookstore around the time school starts,'" said Jennifer Rodriguez, a 40-year-old paramedic student from West St. Paul. "There was no communication to me that I was going to have to order these online. If I don't know, how am I supposed to proceed?"

Rodriguez has led a petition to persuade Inver Hills officials to allow students the choice of buying online or in the bookstore. Students have also created a Facebook page with wisecracking memes such as the one above. (A few are over the top.)

Wynes (IHCC)

Inver Hills President Tim Wynes said the new system was meant to eliminate the "long lines" of students at the bookstore at the start of each semester. Students were supposed to order texts at home or on campus and "pick them up right away."

But he said, "It was a flawed system, and I wouldn't do it again. Nothing about it worked."

It's difficult to say exactly how many students have gone without books and for how long.

According to a forwarded internal email Aug. 29 -- four days into the first week -- Wynes wrote that 40 percent of the bookstore's 4,600 orders had yet to be filled.

The end of the second week also saw a large backlog, according to faculty estimates.

Sociology instructor Dave Berger said about 30 percent of his students didn't have books. Biology instructor Heidi Wetherall said at least a third of her freshmen had none, and another, Stacey Jennings, said at least half of her students did not.

Nothing for you here (Photo by Jennifer Rodriguez)

Wetherall said she hasn't heard any complaints in her classes this week.

But philosophy instructor Shane Stroup said more than 10 percent of his class still didn't have books as of Monday, and Berger says that rate is higher in his classes. Some students told me they have yet to receive theirs.

Wynes said he wasn't sure how many were affected. He did not confirm the authenticity of the forwarded email, but said he would "not debate the numbers" I have received.

Wetherall says the problem is especially troublesome at a college such as Inver Hills:

"Many of our students are first-generation college students, so they don't understand -- many of them -- how college works. And even if they did receive information that you have to order your books, it may not have clicked with them. So they assume there's a bookstore and they can go in and buy their books. ... We have a large population of students who also say, 'Oh, I think I'll go to college, and it's the last minute that they enroll, and so they wouldn't haven't ordered their textbooks either. So I think ... those 'nontraditional' students are the ones who really got whacked."

Electronic textbooks didn't seem to alleviate the problem. Freshman business major Mohamed Farah, an 18-year-old from Eagan, said it took even longer to receive access codes to his online text than it did to get some of the actual paper textbooks.

The delays made his studies "kind of chaotic," he said. Even after his microeconomics instructor pushed back a homework assignment for a week so students could get their books, Farah received his text only two days before the homework was due again.

"It was really close," he said. "I had to skim through some of the chapters."

But must we? (Photo by Jennifer Rodriguez)

Rodriguez found the glitch especially difficult.

"I honestly do not have time to sit in the library and copy chapters [from the book there] that can be 20 to 30 pages long, front and back, when I have other places to be. I have children. I have two different jobs. And then I miss study time because I'm in the library trying to copy the pages that I need to study. "

Wynes said "a lot of things" went wrong, but did not elaborate. He said the bookstore supervisor had retired, and Inver Hills employed an interim one. In the forwarded email, he mentioned late course changes and delays in financial-aid voucher approvals as two factors.

Wynes said he's forming a task force to "find a better way to do this next semester so that it doesn't happen again."

The  request to allow both online and bookstore purchases sounded reasonable, he said:

"There's going to have to be a mix. We're going to have to phase into this over the long term. It went too fast, too far, too soon without the right conditions to make it successful."