New federal program tackles spiraling costs of college textbooks

A new $5 million federal program will bring free digital textbooks to students. Daniel M. Ernst/Shutterstock

College students will keep more money in their pockets thanks to a new US$5 million pilot program approved as part of the $1.3 trillion appropriations bill that President Donald J. Trump signed on March 23.

The new grant program, administered by the U.S. Department of Education, will support the creation or improved use of open textbooks for use at any college and university. Open textbooks are made freely available online by their authors. They can also be changed and combined by instructors who use them in their classes.

The goal of the program is to save students money and potentially transform education. It’s difficult to say how much individual students will save, or how many individual students will save money, because the cost of textbooks vary so much from one discipline to another. Nor is it known how many faculty will participate. But, collectively, based on earlier efforts by state governments, the effort could save students $50 million annually.

As the head of the library at a major U.S. public research university and as a proponent of using technology to improve research and education, I believe this program represents an important step forward to help students financially and academically. Federal endorsement of open textbooks is symbolically important. It also represents a big shot in the arm for the Open Educational Materials movement. However, a one-time grant of $5 million isn’t enough.

The consequences of unaffordable textbooks

Over the years, as the cost of higher education has continued to rise, college textbooks have become unaffordable for many students. According to the U.S. Student Public Interest Research Group, since 2006, the cost of a college textbook has risen by 73 percent – over four times the rate of inflation. The federal government’s estimate of the cost increase is even higher: 88 percent. According to the College Board, students at public four-year universities spend an average of $1,250 on textbooks, and individual textbooks can cost up to $400.

One survey found that 65 percent of students skipped buying a textbook at some point because of cost. A 2017 survey found that 50 percent of students say their decision to put off or skip buying course materials had a negative impact on their grades.

Open textbooks represent an emerging solution to the textbook cost problem. Open textbooks usually have similar content to traditional textbooks but are published online under an open copyright license, so that they can be freely used by students, teachers and the public.

Instead of recovering the cost of writing and publishing a textbook through sales to students, that cost is covered up front from different sources, such as this new pilot program. For that reason, no purchase of the book is necessary – anyone can read it for free. Open textbooks are mainly written by dedicated professors who are concerned about the high cost of textbooks to their students or intrigued with the promise that online ebooks have to improve learning. They write the books for free and publish them in freely available online platforms.

The benefits of open textbooks

Teachers can also freely combine and adapt open textbooks to fit the particular needs of their course without complex and expensive negotiations with publishers. That’s very important to teachers who want the highest quality and most appropriate materials for their class, particularly when they can’t find the perfect off-the-shelf textbook.

The Open Educational Resources movement isn’t new. Rather, it’s been slowly growing over the past 20 years.

MIT’s Open CourseWare Project started in 2001. Programs such as OpenStax CNX and California State University’s Affordable Learning Solutions initiative have made steady progress as well.

Foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and others have long supported these efforts. (The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a strategic partner of The Conversation US and provides funding for The Conversation internationally.)

Advocacy organizations such as the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and SPARC – the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition – have raised awareness with faculty, authors, students, politicians and the public. And it’s not limited to higher education. The movement is gaining support in K-12 education as well, with initiatives like Curriki.

The role of college libraries

College and university libraries also help. More specifically, they provide support, advocacy, financial subsidy and technical infrastructure on campuses. They may also partner with college bookstores and innovative publishers to promote open textbooks alternatives.

For example, university libraries make open textbooks available and market them through course websites and campus bookstores, alongside other course materials that students can buy. Librarians at my university consult with faculty to evaluate course materials and promote open textbooks that are the same quality as books that cost hundreds of dollars. Several libraries in the University of California system provide technology to make open textbooks available online and promote them to students.

Beyond saving students money, open textbooks and other open educational materials provide opportunities for technical innovation and better educational experiences. For instance, instructors might mix and match sections of different textbooks, or change the textbook slightly to fit local needs. The pilot program’s choice of a permissive, nonexclusive copyright license, which requires only credit to the textbook authors, is significant in this regard.

Open licenses like CC-BY are the gold standard in terms of providing clarity on what instructors are allowed to do with these textbooks. These Creative Commons licenses eliminate restrictions on reuse and changes.

Open textbooks also make it easier to introduce dynamic context into the book. For example, instructors may add visualizations of data being discussed or embed interactive problem sets in each section. This ability to adapt an open textbook quickly for rapidly evolving or new academic subjects, like metagenomics or data science, makes open textbooks attractive to digital-savvy faculty at institutions like mine.

Toward greater use of open textbooks

As one example, at UC Davis, a project to revolutionize chemistry textbooks and make them free to students contributed to LibreTexts, an innovative online platform that makes expensive and rapidly changing open educational materials available in more dynamic and engaging ways.

Through the new pilot program approved by the Trump administration, the Department of Education will run a competitive grant program to support projects at colleges and universities that create new open textbooks or expand the use of existing ones, like those created under the earlier initiatives described above. But details about how the program will work are not yet available.

For large-scale adoption of open textbooks to succeed, a critical mass of high-quality open textbooks must be available. That is not yet the case. Further, instructors across higher education must recognize their value and adopt them for their classes.

Government stimulus funds like the $5 million pilot program provide strong motivation for creating open textbooks and validating their use. But permanently solving the problem of ensuring access to affordable, high-quality textbooks will require greater recognition that the high cost of textbooks hurts students, both academically and financially. For that reason, stronger legislation, such as the proposed Affordable College Textbook Act, will be needed to make open textbooks the norm.