Cool: Mitch Daniels teams with Amazon to bring down textbook costs for Purdue students

After having passed on the possibility of running for President of the United States, former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is entering his second year as president of Purdue University in Indiana. Though the former governor has his eggheaded bona fides—a Princeton grad and former Director of OMB—many thought it was an odd match to have the famously conservative (especially fiscally) governor at the helm of a university. The move sparked a few protests from former students and wariness from faculty, many of whom were colorful with their predictions of doom.


Heading into the 2014 school year, Purdue students are enjoying the first tuition freeze in 36 years, a 10-percent drop in their dining hall prices, and now the possibility of a bunch of text book savings. If you have recently been in college or have kids who are, you know the serious chunk rising text book costs can take out of one’s income.

“It just frosts me,” Daniels said. “There had to be a better way.”

As he did when he gambled that three years of tuition freezes could be done with the existing budget — all in the name of student affordability — Daniels found what he thinks is a better way. West Lafayette book store owners took exception to claims that Amazon can deliver the 30 percent savings Purdue predicts, saying Daniels is getting a bigger splash than he is a big bargain.

But in that standoff, Daniels can count on little sympathy for the existing retail textbook system from students who already have been scouting secondary markets to beat an annual load that Purdue estimated climbed from $890 a year in 2002-03 to $1,370 in 2012-13. (That increase of 54 percent was better, believe it or not, than the national average increase of 82 percent during the same time, according to the Government Accountability Office.)

Daniels is engaging in an experimental partnership with Amazon, figuring the giant bookseller can offer students better prices and inject much-needed competition in the campus bookselling market, which has been pretty insular until now. This is from the Purdue press release, not a news source, but it just explains the basics:


Purdue and Amazon have launched the Purdue Student Store on Amazon, a new, co-branded experience where students can purchase lower-cost textbooks and other college essentials.

And for the first time ever, Amazon also will bring staffed customer order pickup and drop-off locations to Purdue’s campus, as well as expedited shipping benefits phased in over the course of the 2014-2015 academic year.

The Purdue Student Store on Amazon, found at, launched Tuesday (Aug. 12). The first campus pickup location is expected to be open in early 2015.

The Chicago Tribune wrote glowingly about Daniels’ efforts recently. His hallmark fat-cutting is in full effect:

In 19 months as president of Purdue University, the former Indiana governor has frozen base tuition after 36 straight years of increases. The freeze lasts at least through the 2015-16 academic year.

Along the way, Daniels cut the cost of student dining services food by 10 percent. He’s saved big money by streamlining purchasing and finding other economies of scale. No saving is too small: He sold 10 school cars (about $10,000 each), cut rental storage in half ($160,000 saved) and repurposed used office furniture instead of buying new ($28,000 saved). “This place was not built to be efficient,” he told The Wall Street Journal. But “you’re not going to find many places where you just take a cleaver and hack off a big piece of fat. Just like a cow, it’s marbled through the whole enterprise.”

When Daniels arrived on campus 19 months ago, we said his tenure would test the business-as-usual, soak-the-middle-class-with-rising-tuition ethos that passes for leadership at most American universities. For openers, Daniels’ pay is based on performance. He is judged on whether he makes Purdue more affordable for students, hikes graduation rates and, of course, excels at the key mission of a university president: fundraising.


The university also won a $500,000 award this year for creating a 3-year bachelors degree program that could save undergrads about $10K.

Purdue University will offer some of its students a chance to earn a bachelor’s degree in three years.

University President Mitch Daniels announced Monday that the school won a $500,000 incentive award for developing a program that will allow communications students to complete the same courses as their peers within 36 months.

“This is another way to make college more affordable,” Daniels said. “Purdue needs to think innovatively to help young people get the full value out of their education experience.”

The program requires communication students to take a heavier course load for four semesters, and to take courses during two summers.

Students will save $9,290, roughly the cost of one year of in-state tuition, said Marifran Mattson, professor and head of Purdue’s Brian Lamb School of Communication.

Mitch Daniels is doing the work tackling a giant national problem on a small scale. It’s not sexy. It doesn’t come with nearly the national headlines that his former profession brought. It likely requires hanging out with not a small number of people who detest his ideology and his career before he got to Purdue. And yet, he’s trying new things and making college more affordable for students. He’s picking the right targets, creating support for his moves, cutting where necessary, and most importantly, showing results in a way that matters to students. Not every experiment will work perfectly, but colleges have got to start trying something other than begging for easier credit to compensate for their inability to save and prioritize. If Daniels is able to forge a new path at Purdue without sacrificing respect or quality, maybe others will try, too. In doing so, he’ll have done a hell of a lot more for college affordability than any number of national politicians who talk about it all the time.


When asked by the Tribune if he worried about losing students to other colleges in the amenities race, Daniels replied:

“It could be that we’ll still lose students to someone with a higher climbing wall, but we are prepared to take that chance.”

Take heed, other college presidents. This is what an academic looks like.

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