Exchange student challenges the high cost of textbooks

Straight outta Wisconsin
By ERICA SAGRANS  |  January 28, 2010

When he encounters an injustice — no matter how small — Dustin “Dusty” Pfundheller takes action. Pfundheller, 20, arrived at Rhode Island College this fall on an exchange program from the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. When he bought his pre-med textbooks at the college bookstore, he was shocked at the $963 bill.

Though Pfundheller enjoys his new school, he still longs for the $63-per-semester textbook rental fee (which included not just books but calculators and supplies) he paid back in Wisconsin. He started doing research, finding that the textbook rental system, though popular in the Midwest, was virtually unheard of on the East Coast.

So Pfundheller did what any good campus organizer does these days — he started a Facebook group. The online group “RIC needs Textbook Rental System!!!” soon gained more than 1000 members and his idea sparked enthusiasm.

As a student senate member in Wisconsin, Pfundheller was something of a renegade. As a non-political science major who knew most students from being on the track team, he wanted to focus on student concerns, like weight room and cafeteria hours, rather than state or national issues. “There’s simple things, like having a coin machine by the laundry. It wasn’t that expensive, it just took someone to put it there, and makes it more convenient,” he recalls. “While I’m at RIC it’s the same — finding little things that will make huge differences for students.”

Pfundheller co-authored a 30-page report, outlining the proposed book rental system, the costs, and how the system works at other universities, which he presented to RIC President John Nazarian in November. The report is both a sympathetic tale of Pfundheller’s frustrating book-buying experience — including his struggles with online mix-ups and his sharing textbooks with classmates — and a serious document with the numbers and dates needed to set up a rental system.

Under Pfundheller’s proposal, students would pay a flat fee to rent all of their books for that semester, returning them at the end with an option to buy.

While student backing has been strong, some doubt the feasibility of such an idea. Professors would lose flexibility in which textbooks they assign, since they would have to use the same books for several years, rather than changing each semester.

According to Virgil Monroe, textbook manager at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, most Midwest colleges began offering rentals when the colleges were founded. RIC’s administration, while expressing support, remains cautious. Michael Smith, assistant to the president, estimates the startup costs could be $5 million. The question has been referred to the Campus Store Advisory Committee, which will explore the proposal’s feasibility.

As Pfundheller’s heads back to Wisconsin (his project during winter break is to start a nonprofit aimed at increasing financial efficiency among universities), his proposed system could gain momentum from likeminded students or putter out with his return to the Midwest.

Pfundheller’s entrepreneurial spirit is at odds with the slow pace of bureaucracy at a public institution, but he’ll no doubt be remembered here as a kid who paid too much for his textbooks and tried to do something about it.  

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