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A proposal to save GSU students $1,000,000< on learning materials (by 2026) to increase their academic success and reduce their financial stress: A Plan to Automate the "Wallace Method" and implement it across the university

Proposal submitted to the Georgia State University Foundation Trustees. Funded $20k.

Published onJul 25, 2023
A proposal to save GSU students $1,000,000< on learning materials (by 2026) to increase their academic success and reduce their financial stress: A Plan to Automate the "Wallace Method" and implement it across the university

To be considered for this award, please send submissions to Telly McGaha at [email protected] by January 16, 2023 at noon.

Proposal Summary

High-level description of the project, highlighting innovative components.

We are requesting a gift of $20,000 from the GSU Foundation Trustees to save GSU students more than $1,000,000 on learning materials before 2026. This will increase student success, reduce their financial stress, and strengthen GSU’s reputation as a national leader in (analytics for) student success. Of course, student success is a key part of GSU’s strategic plan, including President Blake’s vision. Our proposal has a two year timeline: In Year 1, we will automate a proven, manual process for transforming expensive materials (e.g., textbooks and ancillaries) to no-cost for students. We call this process the Wallace Method, after Sally Wallace, former Dean of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies (AYS). In Year 2, we will use the automation software to efficiently and effectively transform expensive materials to no-cost, across GSU (not just in AYS). We first used this process in fall 2019 and immediately saved students $130,000. This amount multiplied each semester thereafter. In short, we achieved this by working with the GSU library to purchase unlimited e-versions of already-assigned materials. Unlimited e-versions provide GSU students with no-cost access to required materials. The unlimited e-versions cost the library (not AYS) about $4,500, a financial ROI of 29x in the first semester alone. A strength of the Wallace Method is it does not depend on the help of instructors, CETLOE, and other people/units who are already stretched thin. Right now, the biggest problem with the Wallace Method is we have to do it manually. This reduces the process’s ROI by requiring more time and effort to complete it, compared to what would be required if the process was automated. The total dependency on manual labor reduces the method’s scalability, limiting the amount of money it can save students in AYS, GSU, and beyond, such as University System of Georgia (USG) institutions. “To push ourselves to go even further … toward even better outcomes (President Blake), we must “be even more committed to developing and scaling innovative, evidence-based student supports.” That is we set out to accomplish with this proposal.

Proposal Narrative

Full description of the project and its key leaders/partners, including addressing how the project will directly impact students and how the project fits into the overall university strategic plan.

Despite various forms of student financial assistance, such as need and merit-based scholarships, work-study arrangements, and loans, unmet financial need remains a critical barrier in students’ progression to college degree completion. “Unmet financial need” refers to the dollar-amount difference between what students need to pay for their education and (i.e., versus) what they can afford (based on income, savings, and financial assistance). The unmet need of GSU students has doubled over the last decade. The average GSU undergraduate student faces an unmet need of $8,000. With more than half of our undergraduate population qualifying for the Pell Grant, our most vulnerable students are struggling financially.

Expensive learning materials (textbooks and ancillaries) are perhaps higher education’s most infamous cost. You probably remember this from your days in college; we do. The price is only getting worse, rising more than 1,000% than the average consumer price over the last few decades. Research shows students are less successful when materials are more expensive. Yet, the average 3 credit-hour course at GSU requires each student to purchase $200 of materials; in a semester, this equals $1,000 per student (assuming full enrollment at 15 hours).

Many GSU students simply cannot afford expensive materials. Due to their financial situation, students forgo or delay obtaining them. This is a “choice,” but it is understandable. If we had to choose, we too would pay for childcare, gas, food, or rent before textbooks. This is a reality for many GSU students. When courses use expensive materials, students are stopped or slowed from from learning, earning good grades, and graduating. The measurable effects include higher rates of Drop-Withdraw-Fail (DWF), lower average GPA, slower time to graduation, and lower rates of graduation.

To maximize student success at GSU, it is necessary to substantially reduce the cost of materials. Unlike expensive materials, no-cost alternatives are immediately available to students. They do not have to choose between basic needs and academic success. When a course uses no-cost materials, students are more likely to stay in it (not drop or withdraw), pass (not fail), and get a better grade, all of which increase the likelihood and speed of graduation. Non-financial benefits result, as well, most notably a reduction of financial stress in students’ lives. This is evident in their course feedbak, for instance (see the section, Supplemental Information).

An initiative to reduce the cost of materials at GSU is perfectly aligned with its strategic plan. As you know, GSU is a national leader in student success. Rather than rest on our laurels, President Blake wants us “to push ourselves to go even further … toward even better outcomes.”

Within GSU, AYS is a leader (with Perimeter) in no-cost materials for student success. This largely this stems from Dean Wallace’s vision for the college—its Digital Landscape Initiative. Before the computer age, it was impractical to provide students with free materials. This is because the materials were all printed on paper. Printing is expensive. So too is shipping and storing physical materials (e.g., maintaining book stores). These costs are no longer needed, thanks to digitization. It is basically free (<$0.01) to publish something electronically (the “original”), make electronic copies, and distribute them. Despite this advancement, the price of materials keeps going up, as do the margins of big publishers. This status quo is a choice. If anyone is to blame for the high and increasing cost of materials, it is not big publishers. It is our fault.

Principally, instructors and departments decide which materials are used in their courses. They choose between expensive and no-cost materials. Hence the cost of materials is in our control. Expensive materials are our fault. But that is good news! Why? Because it means: We have the power to change things. We deserve blame or applause, depending on what we do. No-cost materials are our accomplishment. We were inspired by Dr. Timothy Renick, who said during his TEDxGeorgiaStateU talk: “What we did at Georgia State was to put the mirror on ourselves. It’s easy to blame others for failures in higher education. What happens if we actually ask, ‘To what extent are we complicit in the failure of many of our students?’ What we’ve done at Georgia State is begin to look at data and analyze ways in which we are part of the problem, so we can find solutions.” (Note: This quote is close to verbatim but not exactly; his meaning is unchanged).

In short, Dr. Renick called on us to be self-critical, accountable, action-oriented, and driven by data and analytics. One way we did so at AYS is by starting “AYS Open,” one of three strategic priorities in the college’s Digital Landscape Initiative. The mission of AYS Open is to increase the use and quality of free information and knowledge. This includes “giving” and “taking.” We give by making our outputs (e.g., articles, data) open access: “digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.”1 We take by using more open access or otherwise free resources in our research, teaching, and service. For example, we promote the use of the open statistical software programs (e.g., R) over expensive alternatives (e.g., Stata and SPSS). Also in this vein, we promote the use of no-cost learning materials over expensive ones. In the last few years, about 7500 students have taken AYS Open’s no-cost courses. If you multiply that number by the average material cost for students (recall from above it is $200 for a 3 credit-hour course), we saved students about $1,500,000. We accomplished this with less than $40,000 of AYS’s money, much of which came to us as philanthropic gifts earmarked for the purpose.

AYS Open accomplished that feat by developing and implementing several “processes” (i.e., “methods”). Some of them have higher ROI than others, such as requiring more preparatory time, effort, and investment. For instance, it is difficult to get instructors to adopt new materials, as it takes a lot of time and effort. It is often necessary, therefore, to financially motive this behavior. For example, the University System of Georgia’s (USG’s) program, Affordable Learning Georgia (ALG), pays an instructor up to $5,000 to make the change. Another option is to take advantage of “fair use,” but this is shaky ground apt to be misused by instructors and land them or GSU in hot water (e.g., as evident in the lawsuit, Cambridge University Press vs. Patton et al., AKA vs. Becker). From operating AYS Open, we learned a valuable lesson: To the extent our processes minimize what is asked of others (e.g., instructors, librarians, instructional designers), we are more successful: We produce a higher ROI, more quickly, with more certainty, and clear legality.

The Wallace Method

AYS Open’s highest ROI process is referred to as “the Wallace Method” (named after Dean Wallace). It is simple, almost unbelievable. To date, it is executed this way:

  1. The Director of AYS Open (Dr. Scott Jacques) visits the GSU course schedule website. For each AYS academic unit (there are 5), he puts each course section in a row in a spreadsheet (e.g., Excel).

  2. Next, he visits the GSU bookstore website. For each section, he records its required materials (e.g., authors, title, edition, ISBN). For each such material, he also records the minimum and maximum price. Usually, it is cheapest to rent a used physical copy, and most expensive to buy a new one, for instance.

  3. He visits the Faculty Select website, which is an EBSCO product afforded by the GSU library. For each material, he uses this website to determine if it can be purchased, and at what price, as “unlimited e-versions.” An unlimited e-version is an electronic book (available via the library) without a cap on concurrent users. To be clear, not all e-books in our library are unlimited. Some only allow one or two users at a time, similar to a physical book.

  4. For each material that can be purchased as an unlimited e-version, he weighs its price vs. the immediate students savings (= the number of students who are required to use the material, multiplied by the maximum amount it could cost them). Typically, an unlimited e-version of a book costs between $50 and $350, but it can be several times that amount. It is rational to purchase the unlimited e-version if its price is less than the resultant student savings, it is rational to purchase.

  5. For each material that is rational to purchase, he consults with the library (e.g., Laura Burtle or La Loria Konata) and AYS Dean to determine if there are funds available to make the purchase.

  6. To the extent funds are available, he purchases the unlimited e-versions. If there is not enough money to purchase all of the rational options, he prioritizes purchases with greater ROI; that is, greater student savings per dollar spent on an unlimited e-version.

  7. For the materials we purchase, Jacques contacts instructors who use them. He works with them to ensure they notify students of the no-cost option.

In the first semester of AYS Open (fall 2019), for example, we used this method to immediately save students about $130,000. It cost AYS nothing (other than time and effort) to provide students with these materials. Instead, the GSU library spent about $4,500 to acquire them, using funds already provided to the library to acquire resources for AYS (e.g., books on criminology, economics, public management and policy studies, social work, urban studies). The financial ROI is 29x in the first semester. The student savings continued thereafter because the no-cost materials were used in subsequent semesters, multiplying the student savings. To be clear, the Wallace Method requires very little of anyone other than Jacques and his library counterparts. Literally, all instructors need to do is put a link to the library’s newly acquired unlimited e-version. Nothing is required of CETLOE or others.

The Wallace Method is scalable, except for one problem: The work is done manually. It takes Jacques at least a few days per AYS unit, so a couple weeks to complete the work. Therefore, we can only take advantage of the process on a periodic basis, certainly not at an optimal rate (e.g., start, middle, and end of each semester). For the same reason, the manual work cannot be scaled to all of GSU and beyond, such as other USG institutions, without hiring people to do the work—reducing the ROI.

To maximize the Wallace Method’s ROI, it must be automated to the extent possible. This is generally recognized at GSU. President Blake wants all of us to “continue our ambitious drive toward even better outcomes. The effort will require us to be even more committed to developing and scaling innovative, evidence-based student supports.”

Our Request

To scale the Wallace Method, we are requesting a gift of $20,000 from the GSU Foundation Trustees. Based on our prior experience (see above), we are confident that we will save GSU students at least $1,000,000 before 2026. This would be a 50x return on the Trustee’s financial investment. Also, there will be non-financial ROI: greater student success, less financial stress for them, and strengthening GSU’s reputation as a leader in (analytics for) student success.

Project Timeline and Budget

Overview of the proposed timeline for the project and how the funds would be spent.

Year 1

In Year 1, Drs. Jacques and Andrew Wheeler will develop software to automate the manual process. Jacques is professor of criminology and criminal justice (CJC) and director of AYS Open. As explained above, he is responsible for the Wallace Method. To date, he is the only person within AYS to perform (i.e., execute) the process. Wheeler is affiliated faculty of CJC and a data scientist. He was granted affiliate status to work as a data scientist with CJC faulty. Jacques and Wheeler will publish the software with GSU branding and an open source license. This software and its publication are project outcomes. We are requesting $10,000 during Year 1 to support their time, with the amount split evenly between them.

Year 2

In Year 2, Drs. Jacques and Ellen Ballard will use the software (see above) and requested funds (see below) to reduce the cost of learning materials for GSU students. Ballard is clinical instructor of CJC and the department’s coordinator for no-cost, standardized courses. She is experienced at working with instructors to adopt (and keep using) no-cost materials. Jacques and Ballard will use the automated software to identify course sections suitable to high-ROI transformation; purchase the unlimited e-versions for those sections; ensure instructors notify their students of no-cost options; calculate the student savings; and, evaluate the impact on student success. The resultant student savings and student success are project outcomes. We are requesting $10,000 during Year 2, half to support Ballard’s time, half to purchase unlimited e-versions. We are not requesting funds to support Jacques’s time in Year 2.

Project Outcomes

Description of expected outcomes, including how outcomes will be tracked and reported.

As explained above, the project’s outcomes are (1) software to identify high-ROI transformation opportunities; (2) open source publication of the software; (3) student savings; and, (4) student success. The software’s impact will be evident in student savings at GSU. For each transformed course section, the “student savings” equal the amount students would have spent on learning materials had the no-cost transformation not occurred. For example, if a section’s textbook is $200, and there are 100 students enrolled, the students savings would be $200 x 100 students = $20,000. Based on experience, we expect to save students at least $100,000 by the end of Year 2, probably much more. Also, these savings will multiple each semester after Year 2 (i.e., the no-cost materials keep getting used, which means they keep saving students money). The software’s impact will be further evident in students savings beyond GSU, made possible by the software’s open source publication. To the extent that other universities use the GSU-branded software, it will increase our reputation as a leader in (analytics for) student success. By removing a cost-barrier to education, we should see improved student success in the transformed sections, such as measured by Drop-Withdraw-Fail (DWF) rates. We will assess the impact on student success by comparing change in DWF rates of transformed vs. untransformed course sections. To the extent other universities adopt our process, this should increase GSU’s reputation as a national leader in (analytics for) student success.

Supplemental Information

Proposals may include additional elements or supporting documents that relate to the submitted project.

Student quotes

From our experience delivering no-cost course sections, we know that students see value in them. As seen in the following illustrative quotes, students perceive no-cost learning materials as increasing their academic success by removing a financial barrier, which also reduces their financial stress; and, therefore, they are asking for more classes to be no-cost. Note: We lightly edited quotes for clarity, formality (grammar and spelling), and length.

Ms. Alihi: As every semester starts, I have to spend an additional $300+ on textbooks on top of my tuition. Having a class in which I do not have to purchase another textbook is very comforting.

Ms. Atiquah: I find it very disheartening when professors do not consider a student's financial capability when they assign a specific book for their course. My appreciation goes out to professors who keep their students in mind as they prepare for the upcoming semester’s lesson plans. Students are already paying too much tuition, off-campus transportation, and other expenses. Having to pay for expensive books has always resulted in a great deal of stress and sleepless nights for me. Due to the opportunity, to gain knowledge without being held back, I strive to succeed. Thank you!

Ms. Ayoub: I am extremely thankful this course doesn’t have students pay for books. With this course, students are able to focus on truly learning the content and not have to worry about when their free trial is going to end or how they will pay for it.

Mr. Berry: I really appreciate being able to learn without having to pay for textbooks. That’s a struggle that I have because I don't know how to use my Pantercard with funds to pay for books, so all of my textbooks have been paid out of pocket and they’re expensive.

Ms. Chavez: Having the opportunity to be in a course where all the material is free is honestly amazing. It is frustrating to deal with the stress of buying multiple books when I’m taking 5 courses! It would be a dream if all courses were designed this way!

Mr. Clements: You would think tuition would already cover these textbook expenses. Learning that classes also require extra expenses just adds extra obstacles for students.

Ms. Ferreira: I agree with all of you guys [and gals]: a lot of classes need to more free documents, videos, books et cetera. In a way, I feel like if we have a lot of students speak up for this, it will make a difference. We may not be able to change GSU’s policy [to all no-cost learning materials], but at least we change our professors. As college students, it’s already hard enough paying for expenses. Having free course materials would help take that stress-load off our shoulders.

Ms. Florez: Textbooks can be a hassle to acquire sometimes and of course, like many of us, we don't want to consider another expense. This no-cost approach is a breath of fresh air. It’s great to have the resources already accessible to us to start learning, rather than worry about additional expenses.

Mr. Ford: Last semester I had a similar course with this same professor. I decided because of the no-cost resources, I would enroll in another of their courses. I find that when professors prioritize learning over the purchasing of materials, everyone has a much better overall experience. I think it allows for much more interest in the content.

Ms. Hill: This class is the only class this semester that I do not have to pay for learning materials. I am very grateful because it was becoming a lot.

Ms. Martin: I really love this [no-cost approach]. I like knowing that teachers want to see us actually succeed without having to pay for books, because some of us really can’t afford them and that sometimes holds them back.

Ms. Nguyen: I love how accessible the materials are for this class. It is rare to have a class where you don’t need to pay hundreds of dollars for a book or an online [ancillary] program. It becomes a burden on a lot of students who may not be able to afford them. Having free materials allows for more students to be successful.

Mr. Rosenhoover: When I start the first week of classes, I am focused on obtaining materials needed for the course, making transportation arrangements [to get them,] and many other things. It is a great feeling to be able to have all the resources available instantly, allowing students to get right into the tasks. There is no reason for me to fail in this course.

Note: We have never encountered a negative student perception of no-cost learning materials.

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