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 and sciences at Central Lakes, a community and technical college with 6,000 students. “It really makes a big difference for them if we can reduce or eliminate their textbook costs.”

Already, nearly 10 percent of college instructors nationwide say they use free online textbooks in their courses, according to a 2017 report by the Babson Survey Research Group.

But only a few colleges have gone as far as Central Lakes, creating an entire degree program using free material, also known as open educational resources. The University of Northwestern, a small Christian school in St. Paul, is another one; it has offered a Z-degree in its online business program since 2016.

(Next page: Pushback from some causes student frustration)

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