Educators at 55 colleges will use OpenStax books this fall.

College students in some of the most heavily attended courses in the country will eclipse $1 million in textbook savings after a Rice University-based publisher had 13,000 open-source books downloaded since June.

OpenStax College, a start-up online textbook publisher launched early this year, announced Aug. 14 that its first two book titles, College Physics and Introduction to Sociology, have sold more than 13,000 free copies – enough to save students $1 million during the upcoming fall semester.

Richard Baraniuk, OpenStax College’s founder and an engineering professor at Rice, said students would save more money this fall than it cost to create the sociology and physics textbooks, as educators at 55 colleges and universities have committed to using the textbooks this fall.

Baraniuk’s goal is to save college students $95 million over the next five years.

Open-textbook activists said skeptics of low-cost and free textbooks shouldn’t scoff at OpenStax’s modest adoption rate.

“Fifty-five adoptions may not seem big in the context of a multi-billion-dollar industry, but looking at these books as disruptive technology it could be all it takes to insert a wedge into the market,” said Nicole Allen, a Student PIRG spokeswoman who tracks national textbook preferences and policies.

Student PIRG textbook cost projections showed that Washington state’s Open Course Library would save $102 per student per course. Allen said the organization has similar hopes for OpenStax.

David Harris, OpenStax College editor-in-chief, said drawing student interest wasn’t difficult because students have, for years, sought myriad ways to avoid spending hundreds on a single book for a single class.

Creating a quality textbook, Harris said, was what spread the word among instructors and professors who want to help their students save money on books without using suspect teaching material.

“A bad book is still a bad book, even if it’s free,” Harris said. “Our books are both free and high quality, thanks to the investment of our philanthropic partners.”

OpenStax officials said they would continue development of their first five textbook titles this year with funding from the 20 Million Minds Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Maxfield Foundation. Harris said upcoming OpenStax offerings would include college algebra, general chemistry, principles of economics, U.S. history, psychology, and anatomy and physiology.

In February, Rice’s OpenStax unveiling coincided with a gathering of open educational resource (OER) advocates at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., where the potential cost savings and educational benefits of openly available material were discussed by higher-education officials, technologists, and copyright experts.

U.S. Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter was the keynote speaker at the OER conference. She assured attendees that the Obama administration would continue to support the development of OER as a way of reducing growing educational costs—a highlight of Obama’s State of the Union address.

During her days as a community college chancellor, Kanter knew of student groups that pooled their money to buy textbooks, ripped the books into pieces, and made copies of those sections for their classmates.

“It broke my heart to see that,” Kanter said.

Six in 10 students at the University of California, Riverside said in November that they forgo purchasing recommended class supplies—including textbooks—because they’re strapped for cash.

And while 60 percent of respondents to the UC Riverside survey said they “skipped buying [schools supplies] entirely,” and two-thirds of students said they postponed buying textbooks and other supplies, leaving them without necessary class material in the first weeks of a course.

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