Unpacking the Link Between College Affordability, Textbook Costs and Food Insecurity
The idea for this artifact was sparked by a desire to explore how the rising costs of higher education impact student well-being. The recent pandemic has highlighted the many systemic issues in higher education and our society, particularly in terms of wealth inequality. Although disparate issues, textbook costs and food insecurity are both symptoms of these systemic issues. By amalgamating data about the issue of textbook costs and food insecurity among college students, we have aimed to elucidate the relationship between these pressing issues facing college students. Initial ideas about how to represent and physicalize this relationship focused on the idea of balance and the relationship between these two issues, with the idea of a balance scale being considered as a way of showing how increasing or decreasing textbook costs could tangibly impact food security. We originally grappled with how to represent cost-related "units" of books, savings, and food (taking into consideration the "average" cost of a textbook, the "average" cost of textbooks for a semester or academic year, as represented in the literature, or even the percentages of students across certain demographic groups that experience food insecurity as represented in our main dataset), but ultimately decided that the issue of food insecurity for an individual had too much of a real, immediate, physical impact to attempt to portray it on a larger data-driven level. So after productive and helpful discussion with colleagues, the idea of using a backpack as a representation of a student’s limited resources was floated, and stuck. The individuality and immediacy of a student and their backpack was evocative and visceral in a way that other data representations were not, and the emotional experience of having to choose between "packing" food or textbooks was intimate, personal, and deeply troubling- all the things that this project was looking to uncover for those who might not have experienced these issues themselves. This idea was further refined into the artifact as it is presented here.
This data physicalization uses materials that are emblematic of the college experience and familiar to most, if not all, college students: backpacks, textbooks, and ramen noodles. The backpack represents a student’s financial resources, which are often limited. There is only so much room in the backpack and only so much weight a student can carry. The textbooks represent the burden of the high cost of textbooks, which cost students around $100 per book on average (OpenOregon, 2017; Senack, 2015). As we are exploring the relationship between textbook costs and the issue of food insecurity among college students, we are using ramen noodles to represent a student’s level of food security and their ability to provide food for themself. Ramen noodles are a popular and even iconic choice of food among college students, since they are very inexpensive and non-perishable, reflecting the fact that most college students struggle financially and find it difficult to provide fresh, nutritious food for themselves. As textbooks are added to the backpack, ramen packets must be removed to make room. This represents how high textbook costs strain student’s already limited resources and cause them to make trade-offs that can be detrimental to their well-being. As textbooks are removed from the backpack, however, ramen packets are added back in, which represents how decreasing textbook costs through things like OERs and reserve programs can free up student’s resources so that they can better provide for themselves.
"Textbook costs increased 88 percent between 2006 and 2016, according to the BLS report. The College Board suggests that students set aside $1,200 each year for books and other course materials, which can be an exorbitant amount of money for students who come from low-income backgrounds.”
Created with an image by stevepb - "school books apples"