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The future cost of textbooks: free?

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Branden Hopper
A&E Editor

Students enrolled in professor Chris Nielson’s U.S. history class this summer were likely surprised by the price tag on the course’s required textbook: free.

Many college students find themselves broke at the beginning of the semester, in part because buying textbooks drained their bank accounts.

That is why Nielsen adopted a textbook developed by Openstax College, the largest provider of free, open educational resources in the country. Nielson chose to use the book for several reasons, including its quality and ease of use. The main reason, however, was simply its price point.

“Ideally, community college would be free or something close to free,” Nielson said. “Education is a human right. It’s not something that large corporations should be making large profits off of.”

While talking with students about textbooks, Nielsen asked how they would feel about a class that had a free textbook. “They go, ‘oh my god, are you kidding?’” he said. “‘That’s great!’”

According to The College Board, a single textbook can cost as much as $200 and the average student spends $1200 on textbooks every year. College textbooks are a multi-billion dollar industry, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Openstax College is a nonprofit organization, run through Rice University, that aims to improve the availability of free textbooks to students across the country.

“About four years ago, we were looking at the market and the price of textbooks was spiraling out of control,” said Openstax College editor-in-chief David Harris. “We decided to publish what we call OER 2.0 that’s designed to meet the scope and sequence of the course, and it’s professionally produced and extensively peer reviewed.”

OER stands for Open Educational Resources that have traditionally been a combination of text and online material. The difficulty with early OER’s was that they were spread across multiple platforms and mediums, making it difficult for instructors to compile a cohesive and accurate textbook, Harris said. Additionally, this material as not peer reviewed, making their use in the classroom questionable.

“The driving force [behind Openstax] was we were looking at the early OER efforts,” Harris said, “and while they were benefitting the individual learner, they weren’t getting adopted on a wide scale, for introductory courses.”

Openstax started producing free, open source textbooks for an array of introductory courses in 2011. It is funded by a core group of philanthropists, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and its primary focus began with the sciences.

“The early funders are very concerned with the technical skills of tomorrow’s workforce,” Harris said. As a result, some of the first textbooks created were physics, biology and chemistry.

Openstax also produces several humanities textbooks, including Sociology, Psychology and U.S. History. Every Openstax textbook is free online and very low cost in print. Chegg, the online textbook retailer, sells them for $4.99.

A survey by The Federation Of State PIRGS found that 65 percent of students decided not to buy a textbook because they were too expensive. It also found that 94 percent of those students worried that neglecting to buy textbooks would negatively impact their performance in that class.

Of the students surveyed, 82 percent said they felt they’d do better in a class that offered a free textbook.

The cost of textbooks can affect decisions students make about their education, including whether or not to take a required course, take an extra non-required course, or even enroll at all.

“I think it can prevent some students from going to school,” Nielsen said.

A 2013 study conducted by the Government Accountability Office found that the price of college textbooks rose nearly three times as much as inflation between 2002 and 2012—82 percent in the same period.

The price of college textbooks hasn’t just outpaced inflation, either.

Compared to the 250 percent increase in the Consumer Price Index over the last 34 years, college textbooks have risen more than three times the amount of the average increase for all goods and services, according to Mark Perry, professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan’s Flint Campus.

“The nature of being a community college student often means that you don’t have a lot of disposable income,” Nielsen said. “As a professor, my own point of view is that there should be some awareness of what students are going through, and what they have to pay in order to take a class, and should a textbook be more than the cost of the actual class, which it often is.”

After reviewing the U.S. History textbook offered by Openstax, Nielsen said, he was very satisfied with its scope and accuracy.

“I was actually really pleased at just how good the book is,” Nielson said. “For [U.S. history] 207 A and B this text is perfect. It’s as good as any other text.”

Openstax has made every effort to ensure that teachers like Nielson feel confident teaching from the textbooks they’ve created, and the intellectual development behind an Openstax textbook is a rigorous one, according to Harris.

“In terms of the intellectual development its very much like, frankly, a traditional publishing model,” Harris said. “We hire subject matter experts from schools around the country. … We go through multiple drafts. They are extensively peer reviewed, professionally illustrated and then after multiple revisions and accuracy checks they move into our production process.”

While Openstax believes there is room in the textbook market for both nonprofits and for-profits, they also think that materials like the ones they produce are gaining ground in the market and will eventually become the rule rather than the exception.

When asked if OERs represent the future of the textbook industry, Harris answered emphatically and without hesitation. “Absolutely. We’re in over 1,400 adoptions, which represents around 140,000 students a term, about 300,000 students a year. It’s growing every single day.”