Students, professors laud $30 textbooks

Open-license textbooks will save students an estimated $100 per course.

Freely available open course material could save college students in Washington state $1.2 million this year: The Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges introduced one of the country’s largest open textbook programs Oct. 31, bringing low-cost class material to 81 college courses with the highest enrollments in the state.

More than 400,000 students at Washington’s 34 community and technical college campuses now will have syllabi, activities, readings, assessments, and textbooks available for $30 per course under a web-based open license.

Funded by Washington state and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Open Course Library (OCL) is expected to save more than $100 for every student in a participating course, and more than $1.2 million for all students in departments that use the material, according to projections from the Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), a national organization that advocates for open college material.

Washington state’s OCL could save college students $42 million annually if the model is adopted statewide.

“It’s not often that government gets this right,” said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, of Washington State’s 36th District, a longtime supporter of the state’s OCL, who added that lower book costs would help college students as state funding dwindles. “This is a significant state investment in this era of massive budget cuts.”

Carlyle said state lawmakers hadn’t taken a stance against big textbook publishers, but rather offered some financial relief for cash-strapped students. He said he would welcome large publishing companies to compete in the burgeoning open-license textbook market.

“They have to win in the marketplace of ideas, the marketplace of academic freedom … and the marketplace of student demand,” Carlyle said.

The steadily increasing prices of textbooks have left many college students taking their chances without required course material.

Seven in 10 students who responded to a Student PIRGs survey said they hadn’t bought at least one required class book because of prohibitive costs. Nearly eight in 10 said taking the class without the needed book would “hurt their academic performance.”

Six in 10 college dropouts said the price of textbooks had affected them financially, according to a report from Public Agenda, a public opinion research organization based in New York.

Lindsey Cassels, a student at Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood, Wash., said the school’s four-quarter system means she has to dole out hundreds for new texts every few months, adding up to more than $2,000 a year.

Cassels used material from the state’s OCL in a public speaking course, and said she would be on much more secure financial ground if every class used OCL books.

“We end up in the hole having to pay for all these books,” said Cassels, an esthetic sciences major who returned to college at 32. “We leave school with a huge debt on our shoulders. … That’s why I hope all my courses can [use open course material].”

Not having to fret about a book’s resale value, students and professors said, has become a selling point for open course material.

Students were more willing to highlight and take notes in the margins of books they bought through the state’s OCL, said Michael Kenyon, math department coordinator at Green River Community College in Auburn, Wash.

“They make much more extensive use of the textbook as a vehicle to improve their learning,” Kenyon said. “They wouldn’t do in a more expensive book because they’re worried about resale value.”

Selling textbooks back to the campus bookstore, Cassels said, barely puts a dent in her yearly book costs.

“You can hardly get anything back,” she said.

Libraries of open college material on the web will grow in the next decade, building onto programs like Washington state’s OCL, open textbook advocates said.

“They’re only going to get better from here,” said Nicole Allen, a spokeswoman for Student PIRGs, “rather than transitioning to another model where publishers can continue ripping students off.”

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