Ad­dress col­lege costs with free books


Much has been made in re­cent years about the ev­er­in­creas­ing cost of higher ed­u­ca­tion. Those con­cerns of­ten — and with good rea­son — are di­rected at the high tu­ition and fees charged by many in­sti­tu­tions. But tu­ition and fees are merely a part of an un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dent’s bud­get.

The Col­lege Board re­ports that four-year univer­sity stu­dents liv­ing on cam­pus spend an av­er­age of $1,250 a year on books and sup­plies. The cost of text­books, as with other higher-ed­u­ca­tion costs, has risen rapidly over the past few decades, at a rate more than three times that of in­fla­tion.

Ev­ery dol­lar a stu­dent can save mat­ters. That is why Vir­ginia re­cently passed leg­is­la­tion (HB 454) to man­date that ev­ery pub­lic in­sti­tu­tion of higher ed­u­ca­tion in the state cre­ate a frame­work to adopt and use open ed­u­ca­tional re­sources and low-cost re­sources across the state. Open ed­u­ca­tional re­sources are free and openly li­censed learn­ing ma­te­ri­als. The mo­ti­va­tion be­hind the bill was the need to es­tab­lish a frame­work that would en­cour­age aca­demic lead­ers and fac­ulty to adopt such ma­te­ri­als in the fu­ture.

One of us is the leg­is­la­tor who in­tro­duced and cham­pi­oned the bill, and the other is a for­mer ad­min­is­tra­tor at Vir­ginia’s Tide­wa­ter Com­mu­nity Col­lege — a na­tional leader in the use of open ed­u­ca­tional re­sources — and is now pres­i­dent of an or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to im­prov­ing col­lege af­ford­abil­ity. We be­lieve law­mak­ers should fol­low the ex­am­ple of Vir­ginia and more than a dozen other states in adopt­ing leg­is­la­tion to en­cour­age the use of open ed­u­ca­tional re­sources.

With ris­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion costs, it is of­ten the stu­dents with the most need who are pun­ished by high text­book costs. A 2014 sur­vey found that 65 per­cent of stu­dents did not buy a book be­cause it was too ex­pen­sive, and 94 per­cent of those stu­dents said they were wor­ried their grade would suf­fer be­cause of it. The prob­lem does not ap­pear to be go­ing away on its own. A 2017 sur­vey found that 85 per­cent of stu­dents had de­layed or avoided buy­ing text­books, and half of those stu­dents said their grades were neg­a­tively af­fected by do­ing so.

Open ed­u­ca­tional re­source leg­is­la­tion al­lows fac­ulty and ad­min­is­tra­tors to cre­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties for th­ese stu­dents to en­sure that price is not the rea­son they do not suc­ceed in classes. In March, Congress rec­og­nized this and des­ig­nated $5 mil­lion in the fis­cal 2018 bud­get to sup­port­ing a fed­eral com­pet­i­tive grant pi­lot pro­gram that en­cour­aged in­sti­tu­tions to “cre­ate new open text­books or ex­pand their use to achieve sav­ings for stu­dents while main­tain­ing or im­prov­ing in­struc­tion and stu­dent learn­ing out­comes.”

Vir­ginia’s com­mu­nity col­leges have long been ahead of the curve with re­gard to open ed­u­ca­tional re­sources. Stu­dents at Tide­wa­ter are sav­ing mil­lions through the use of openly avail­able re­sources. In 2013, the col­lege cre­ated what it calls the “Z de­gree,” in which stu­dents who are earn­ing a busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion de­gree do not pay a cent for text­books. Ev­ery class re­quired by the pro­gram, in­clud­ing gen­eral ed­u­ca­tion courses, uses open ed­u­ca­tional re­sources. Other Vir­ginia col­leges are sim­i­larly lead­ing the way. Stu­dents at Cen­tral Vir­ginia Com­mu­nity Col­lege can take 30 classes with­out pur­chas­ing text­books, which has so far saved them $250,000.

Al­beit early, Vir­ginia’s pol­icy im­per­a­tive, and the early suc­cesses of in­sti­tu­tions such as Tide­wa­ter, are paving the way for state ef­forts to elim­i­nate bar­ri­ers to stu­dents us­ing low- or no-cost re­sources. Higher ed­u­ca­tion costs go be­yond tu­ition and fees, and so must our think­ing, if we are to en­sure our stu­dents’ suc­cess. Eileen Filler-Corn, a Demo­crat, rep­re­sents the 41st Dis­trict in the Vir­ginia House of Del­e­gates. James Toscano is pres­i­dent of Part­ners for Col­lege Af­ford­abil­ity and Pub­lic Trust.

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