At Minnesota state colleges, students spend an average of $1,000 a year on textbooks alone.

But in Brainerd, they can earn a two-year degree without paying a penny for books.

Central Lakes College has joined a growing national movement to ditch pricey textbooks in favor of material that can be found online for free.

This semester, it launched one of the state’s first “Z-degrees,” meaning that all the required readings—in this case, for an associate of arts degree—are available at zero cost to students.

“For a lot of students that are living in poverty, every penny counts,” said Martha Kuehn, dean of liberal arts...

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