Textbook Costs Drop as Nearly Half of Colleges Use OpenStax - Higher Education
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Textbook Costs Drop as Nearly Half of Colleges Use OpenStax

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OpenStax, a nonprofit initiative started by Rice University in 2012 to provide free textbooks and digital resources, is growing and helping to impact the cost of a college education.

Rice University, which operates the program with support from several foundations, recently announced that more than 2.2 million students and nearly half of U.S. colleges are using the service this year to save about $177 million – helping OpenStax surpass its goal early of saving students $500 million in textbook costs by 2020.

Tonja Conerly, San Jacinto College

The institutions using the service range from high schools to community colleges such as San Jacinto College to larger universities such as Arizona State University and North Carolina State University.

A recent study by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) found that the average textbook costs from around the nation are decreasing for the first time in 50 years. Some say the change is due partly to competition from alternatives such as OpenStax.

“This is exactly what we hoped to see,” Daniel Williamson, managing director of OpenStax, told Rice University News & Media. “We’re thrilled about this shift because when open materials drive the price of all textbooks lower, it means our books haven’t just impacted the students who use them – they’re indirectly saving money for every student in the market. We hope to see that ‘average price’ figure shrink even further as open materials reach more students at more institutions in more locations around the world.”

The study, published in May, also concluded that “the average undergraduate student spent $555.60 on required course materials for the academic year” in 2017-18.

Outside of the U.S., 1,150 schools in more than 100 countries are utilizing OpenStax. OpenStax partnered this year with organizations in the United Kingdom and Poland to “promote the use of affordable, open texts worldwide,” the nonprofit said.

Students’ finances during college, long an issue, have become more of one in recent years with steadily rising costs of tuition, housing, food and course materials such as textbooks. Just the cost of traditional textbooks for one semester, which easily could top $500, can be barrier to starting or continuing for lower-income students – who are becoming an increasingly large proportion of college students.

“Overall, we know that students are very concerned about college affordability, and that extends beyond tuition and fees and so-called direct services to include hurdles and burdens, like paying for very expensive textbooks,” said Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Access Network. “So, I imagine a service [like OpenStax] that helps students meet that cost would be much appreciated and help students with affordability.”

OpenStax offers 29 free textbooks for college and Advanced Placement courses in subjects such as algebra, trigonometry, microbiology, physics, sociology, American government and AP micro-economics. The initiative has additional services: OpenStax CNX, a service for authors to create, share and edit OpenStax materials, and OpenStax Tutor, an adaptive learning courseware.

Kim Cook, National College Access Network

To gain access to a textbook, students can go to OpenStax.org, select the subject needed and then select whether they want to download the book as a PDF, for Kindle or just to view online. It is not currently available on the Apple App Store or Google Play.

Students also can choose to print out pages they need, the entire textbook, or they can purchase a book from OpenStax or Amazon for a reduced price, starting at as little as $29. OpenStax resources don’t necessarily expire, but are always kept up to date online, and when necessary, add errata changes in their PDFs and print books once a year.

Additionally, faculty can access faculty-specific materials for a course by creating an OpenStax account and, after verifying themselves as an instructor, gain access to all faculty resources.

OpenStax’s Institutional Partnership Program, is an opportunity for institutions to partner with OpenStax for a year for free consulting and coaching to help them develop and implement plans to increase the use of open educational resource (OER) on their campuses (to remove barriers for their students). The number of schools accepted into the program varies each year.

The program is available to nine schools to participate in during the 2018-19 academic year.

The nine institutions participating, chosen from 31 applicants, are: Arkansas State University, Louisiana Community and Technical College System, Palomar College, San Diego City College, San Jacinto College, Santa Monica College, Thomas Nelson Community College, University of Missouri System and William Rainey Harper College.

The universities and colleges in the partnership program will work with the service to create “institution-specific strategic plans to encourage the use of OER on their campuses” with freely accessible, openly licensed text, media and or digital resources that can be helpful in research, teaching and learning purposes.

Tonja Conerly, director of San Jacinto College’s OER program and sociology professor, called the amount of money students are saving by using OpenStax and OER “phenomenal.”

“So many of today’s college students are single parents, first-generation college students, homeless, unemployed, married, etc. Unfortunately, with all of their obligations comes a financial responsibility,” said Conerly, who is also on the OpenStax Faculty Advisory Board.

“OpenStax helps relieve some of that financial responsibility of having to purchase a physical textbook, which makes this program so successful!”

Last year, San Jacinto College started 30 sections of OER or “open books” courses, which enrolled 768 students, the San Jacinto College News reported. To date, San Jacinto has helped students save more than $1.5 million in textbook costs and the number of open books courses taught at the college has increased to 676 courses that enroll nearly 15,900 students.

Conerly said she is excited about the direction the service is heading.

“I hope they will continue to partner with colleges and universities nationwide and globally to increase educational access,” she said. “OER and OpenStax not only provide no-cost and low-cost textbooks for students, but they also promote academic freedom for faculty members.”

Monica Levitan can be reached at mlevitan@diverseeducation.com

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