Op-ed: A textbook case for reducing the cost of college

March 9, 2014

By Edna V. Baehre-Kolovani

In efforts to ensure the future affordability of higher education, textbooks don’t receive the same notoriety as, say, tuition, fees, athletic facilities and faculty salaries.  And yet, according to the American Enterprise Institute, the cost of college textbooks has risen 812 percent since 1978, more than the rates of inflation, health care, new home prices and even college tuition itself.

The academic toll is high. In January, the University of Maryland’s student government association reported the results of a survey in which 65 percent of students said they have decided not to buy a textbook because of price, and nearly half say they decide their courses based on how much the books cost. At Virginia State University, business school dean Mirta Martin found that less than half of VSU business school students purchased textbooks, and that many had to repeat their classes. After she arranged a pilot of lower cost digital textbooks and increased academic support, student success markedly improved.

But what if a student could avoid buying textbooks altogether?

Open educational resources, known as OER, have emerged as one answer, and many institutions offer courses using OER, which are publicly licensed and academically vetted content.  A Congressional briefing on March 10 in Washington, D.C., will focus on the potential of OER to alter the landscape of higher education and truly put a dent in college costs.

However despite the success of OER, too few colleges and universities have pushed the envelope in examining the full potential of OER in teaching and learning.

In Fall 2013, TCC took an unprecedented step: Inspired by a presentation at a retreat organized by Glenn  DuBois, chancellor of Virginia’s Community Colleges, we piloted an entire, two-year business degree using OER. Not only business courses were included, but also all of the general education courses a student needs to complete the academic program. TCC’s vice president for academic affairs, Daniel DeMarte, will be speaking at the Congressional briefing about our program, which we were able to accomplish with the help of Lumen Learning. Lumen’s co-founder, David Wiley, is also expected to speak.

Until TCC’s “Z-Degree,” no college or university in the U.S. had gathered the diversity of OER resources and developed a faculty team that could produce an entirely textbook-free degree. Over two years, a student stands to save more than $3,600 on the cost of the degree just in textbooks, on top of already affordable community college tuition.

Textbooks “cost” students and professors in other ways as well.

Because textbooks are frequently written for broad audiences in the hopes that they be adopted by large numbers of faculty and departments, they are filled with content that is superfluous to a specific course’s learning outcomes. At best, the faculty member who is focused on content directly supporting the course’s outcomes must skip significant portions of the textbook. At worst, a faculty member may rely on the textbook’s content, not the learning outcomes, to organize and teach a course.

Either way, faculty who want to individualize or update learning content must supplement.  The cost is in teaching efficiency and effectiveness.

Our data from the first semester of the Z-Degree are encouraging! Textbook-free courses had higher student retention and comparable grades, and students perceived better course quality and success at meeting learning goals. The spring semester textbook-free course offerings were quickly filled.

Nicole Allen of SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition, directed a national student campaign for textbook affordability, and she is also scheduled to appear at the Congressional briefing. TCC’s success in identifying and aggregating content across a spectrum of disciplines, she says, “can significantly lower barriers to adoption at other colleges.”

That is the ultimate goal:  We have promising proof of a concept as a national model for eliminating a major barrier to higher education. We won’t stop working with our bookstore partner to provide options like used books, rentals and e-texts, but neither will we stop our bold experiment to improve teaching and learning through free resources.

Because you can’t have teaching or learning, until a student can afford to be in the classroom.