Student’s Web site highlights debate on social equity

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

University of Michigan-Dearborn senior Jeremy White demonstrates, a free Web site he created to connect students for used textbook sales. The site has rapidly been gaining visitors since it was launched in October. White hopes to institute similar sites at other universities.

By J. Patrick Pepper
Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN — Like many uninitiated college students, University of Michigan-Dearborn senior Jeremy White didn’t give much thought to where he would purchase his textbooks.

Semester after semester, the Dearborn High School grad would head to the on-campus Barnes & Noble outlet, thinking that if his instructors are pointing him there in their syllabi, then it must, of course, be the best place to shop.

Additionally, once he was done with a class, the bookstore was almost guaranteed to provide a market for his used textbooks.

But then one day as a sophomore, White said, he was mugged by reality.

“I had a stack of books to sell back and they just start ringing it up and one after another: Four dollars. Three dollars. Seven dollars.

“I mean, this is stuff that I bought already used that cost me a few hundred dollars. How is it worth nothing four months later?”

He left the bookstore without selling back a single text, despite having no need for the books. He decided it was better to keep them rather than allow the bookstore to resell them to another student for 10, maybe 20 times as much.

Two years later, White hasn’t gone back to the bookstore. And his lingering sense of righteous indignation from that experience has become the driving force behind a Web site he created to give UM-Dearborn students an exclusive market to buy and sell used textbooks.

Launched in October, requires a student identification number and password in order to post ads about books for sale. The simple interface includes a searchable database that can be indexed by everything from price to subject matter.

While similar Web based markets – like Craigslist – have existed for years, umdbookswap is unique in that it uses log-in requirements, much in the same way Facebook does, to create more security for users.

“Where Craigslist kind of fails is on the security aspect and ( ensures that students will be meeting up with other students,” White said.

When White – who counts computer mathematics and computer science among his majors (philosophy is the other) – conceived the idea, he thought of it as the obvious answer to a glaring problem: It would allow cash-strapped college students to get a market rate for their unneeded books and at the same time create some competition for the campus bookstore.

White took the idea to student government President Shaheed Atiya to gauge her interest in getting behind the project. Atiya was on board immediately.

“When Jeremy came into our office, it was like a savior had come through the door,” she said. “Book buy-back prices are always a big issue between students and the administration, and this was just a perfect idea to kind of work around that.”

Using her connections with university administrators, Atiya arranged a meeting between White and Chancellor Daniel Little back in October to discuss the site.

White said he went to the meeting to “donate” the idea to the university as a free way to promote consumer education among students.

“I told (Little) I wanted it to become a part of the university. You know, to kind of change the status quo on how things are done in higher education. I thought this is something that they would totally want to be involved with,” White said.

But he was disappointed with the answer he received.

“He basically said, ‘I love the idea and I really like the ambition that you’ve shown on this, but we have a business arrangement (with Barnes & Noble),’ and that was pretty much the end of it,” White said.

Instead, Little suggested that White should get involved with some of the student government bodies and work through the usual channels. But that was something White, an Army infantryman and scout sniper in the Iraq war, said he didn’t have time for.

In response to the perceived inaction of the meeting, White and a handful of other students printed out thousands of provocative fliers promoting the Web site and handed them out around campus. On the front of the flier was a stenciled likeness of Heath Ledger’s Joker character and phrases along the lines of “Who’s laughing now, bookstore?” while the back contained a one-page message that read something like a fed-up student manifesto.

“We felt like the school really was straying from the educational mission by allowing this price gouging to go on, so we made tailored the message to reach students who have had enough,” White said.

The message was met with mixed response. Some students praised the stance as someone finally taking action against the “mighty” bookstore, while others criticized the approach as being too subversive and adversarial (which White readily admits).

But whatever the feelings on the promotion, the product has become an undoubted success. Traffic on the site as of last week had increased to an average of 800 to 900 visitors per day, even though books typically aren’t bought or sold much at this point in the semester, and more than 400 books currently are offered for sale.

It is unclear how much or little the site has taken away from campus bookstore used textbook sales, and university administrators were on spring break last week and could not be reached for interview for this story. However, Vice Chancellor of Enrollment Management Stanley Henderson said in a statement that the university stands by the bookstore.

“The University of Michigan-Dearborn continues to support our campus bookstore partner Barnes and Noble. Book buy-back procedures and maximizing the amount students receive for used books are areas we consider to be of prime importance,” Henderson said.

White said he isn’t surprised.

“They have made it clear they don’t want to be in on a change that it long overdue, so that’s fine, it can pass them by,” he said.

Although it was originally conceived as a pro-bono service for students – and according to White, will remain free – in recent weeks, the site has started to generate revenue from advertisements placed by other textbook vendors.

And with demand skyrocketing in the early going for the site, White has formed a limited liability corporation, Open Markets LLC, and has started to attract interest from venture capitalists to implement similar versions at other universities.

In coming months he will embark on a promotional tour to college campuses throughout Michigan. Eventually he wants to take the idea nationally and use it to illustrate proof-of-concept to attract capital for other similar products. One example he cited is a site that could connect plumbers or carpenters to buy and sell used power tools.

“What we want to do is facilitate consumer education and comsumer communication,” White said.

“Instead of you selling your used item to the store, who then turns and sells it to the guy behind you in line for twice as much, we’re helping people to make that connection with the guy in line behind them.”