Free textbook developer could save students $750M over five years

Textbooks prices have risen faster than tuition.

OpenStax College, a publisher based at Rice University, announced last week that the nonprofit would more than double the number of free online textbooks over the next two years.

Perhaps as noteworthy as the group’s plans to double its available titles is the three-year goal of OpenStax officials: to offer no-cost online textbooks for 25 of the most popular college courses while capturing 10 percent of the textbook market and saving students upwards of $750 million over five years.

Those massive five-year savings depend on OpenStax carving out a considerable spot in the competitive textbook market, of course, but Rice professor and OpenStax College founder Richard Baraniuk said it is a realistic and worthwhile goal.

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“Access is the future of higher education,” he said. “With student debt at an all-time high, it has never been more important to make education more affordable. Our textbooks do that — not just because they are free, but also because they are every bit as good as books that cost $100 or more.”

Cost savings for college students could be especially inviting in the wake of a January American Enterprise Institute report showing textbook prices have increased by more than 800 percent over the past 30 years, rising faster than health are costs, tuition, and inflation.

Why do textbook cost projections vary so widely?

Estimates of how much college students spend on textbooks vary widely. On the low side, the National Association of College Stores charges that students spend around $650 annually on books. College Board estimates put textbook costs at more than $1,100 a year.

Exorbitant textbook costs have had academic consequences for many students, as seven in 10 community college students say they forego purchasing required books because they can’t afford the texts.

OpenStax College – which serves 150 colleges and universities — will double its available textbook titles with grant money from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

The nonprofit spends about $500,000 to develop each free textbook, according to the group’s announcement.

OpenStax has partnered with more than a dozen for-profit companies that provide supplementary material for college textbooks, including online homework and assessments that have been packaged with OpenStax titles.

“Changing textbooks is a lot of work for an instructor, so they only do it every few years,” Baraniuk said. “Our goal is to make it very easy for an instructor to choose our book the next time they update their course curriculum.”

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