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Is This the Solution to Crazy High Textbook Prices?

Sep 01, 2015

Students at the University of Maryland University College won't be purchasing textbooks this fall. The online college announced last week that it would be the first in the U.S. to eliminate the use of print textbooks in favor of online materials to save its 64,000 undergraduates money.

As the high price of textbooks has come in for increasing criticism, alternatives to buying brand-new editions have become more common. (Read these four tips on how to take advantage of those alternatives to save money.)

Those expanded options have helped students spend less, says Ethan Senack, higher education advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. But they haven't actually brought textbook prices down. The cost of a new print textbook has climbed steadily over the decades, increasing 1,041% since 1977, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Instead, Senack's organization thinks the answer is "open" educational resources. Open textbooks are written with the understanding that they'll be free to read online and affordable to print into a hard copy, between $10 and $40, according to U.S. PIRG. In comparison, the average cost of a new textbooks is $68, according to the National Association of College Stores, and many titles easily top the $200 mark.

While it may be easier for an online college to ditch old-school textbooks for digital resources, the move by UMUC is still a boost to the growing camp of open textbook supporters.

Earlier this year, U.S. PIRG reviewed open textbook programs at five colleges: the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Kansas State University, Tacoma Community College, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Maryland. At UMass Amherst, for example, the university spent $60,000 on faculty grants to produce open textbooks and students saved roughly $1 million. On average, students at the five schools saved $128 per course.

Open textbook initiatives have also gained broad interest in other states, including Oregon and Connecticut.

Yet students need faculty members to actually assign open textbooks before they realize any savings. So the biggest challenge, says David Ernst, is increasing awareness of open textbooks, their availability and their benefits. Ernst directs the Open Textbook Network, which is housed at the University of Minnesota, and he oversees its related online library.

Faculty members often don't know if there are open textbook titles in the subjects they teach, and sometimes assume that since they're free, the open books don't meet the same standards of quality and peer-review as traditional books, Ernst says. (They do, he adds.)

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The share of faculty members who replace all of their commercial content with open educational resources is still very small, although the use of open source items alongside other materials is becoming common, says Rich Hershman, the vice president of government relations at the National Association of College Stores.

One challenge is that open textbooks aren't available for every course. The PIRG report counts less than 200 quality open textbooks.

The largest publisher, OpenStax College, has focused on creating books for introductory courses, since they enroll the largest number of students across the country. This fall, 260,000 students are taking courses that will use OpenStax titles.

There's also the issue of student preferences. Surveys by the college stores group show that a large share of students—about a third—still prefer reading print materials over online books.

And so far, much of the funding for major open publishers has come from private philanthropic donations, meaning the organizations aren't exactly self-sustaining.

Still, Ernst, Senack, and others are hopeful. Senack says that students who want to help build support for open textbooks on their campus should start by working with their student government and talking with campus librarians.

For more advice about the handling the costs of college, check out the MONEY College Planner.

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