The crazy price of college textbooks is pushing more US universities to adopt an “open-source” solution

Sticker shock.
Sticker shock.
Image: Reuters/Alessandro Garofalo
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Seven Rhode Island universities, including Brown and Rhode Island College, will move to open-license textbooks in a bid to save students $5 million over the next five years, the governor announced Tuesday (Sept. 27).

The initiative is meant to put a dent in the exorbitant cost of college and, more specifically, college textbooks. Mark Perry, a professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan Flint, and a writer at the American Enterprise Institute, estimated last year that college textbook prices rose 945% between 1978 and 2014, compared to an overall inflation rate of 262% and a 604% rise in the cost of medical care.

Image for article titled The crazy price of college textbooks is pushing more US universities to adopt an “open-source” solution
Image: BLS, Census Bureau

That is not the result of a general trend of higher costs in publishing, he notes: the consumer price index for recreational books has been falling relative to overall inflation since 1998.

“It begs the question, are we getting 1,000% more value?” asked Richard Culatta, the chief innovation officer for Rhode Island who was the director for the office of educational technology in the Obama administration.

Open textbooks are defined as “faculty-written, peer-reviewed textbooks that are published under an open license – meaning that they are available free online, they are free to download, and print copies are available at $10-40, or approximately the cost of printing,” according to a report by the Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) (pdf). They are part of the move toward Open Educational Resources, which has roots in the open-source software movement, it says.

Open licenses allow for content to be shared, unlike traditional textbooks which limit the use of their materials. Culatta remembers teaching and replacing a section of a textbook with more relevant information for his class, only to be informed that he was infringing on international copyright law.

“It made me laugh in a sad way,” he said. I’m a teacher and “I can’t improve the content?”

Rhode Island is following other universities which have experimented with open textbooks. The University of Massachusetts Amherst started its “Open Education Initiative” in 2011, offering $60,000 in grants to faculty to try and lower textbook costs, according to the Student PIRGs report entitled “Open Textbooks: The Billion Dollar Solution.” The Amherst program saved $125.98 per student per course (or $851, 530 overall). The University of Minnesota, Tacoma Community College, Kansas State University, and the University of Maryland ran similar programs, all of which generated savings for students and allowed for content which could be modified and adapted.

The main constraints to the open source textbooks are the lack of them: the Student PIRGs report said there were on only 100 last year.

Many professors argue that the college textbook industry is a racket. Five publishers control nearly 85% of the market, and once professors choose a textbook and design classes around it, they often don’t often change the book much.

“I simply don’t think it’s right or fair to force college students to pay hundreds of dollars, in addition to their tuition, for books that replicate knowledge which is freely available elsewhere,” Henry Farrell, a professor of international relations at George Washington University, wrote the in Washington Post.

A key part of the problem is that textbook prices are not set by the consumers, or students. Professors pick books for their classes, but do not pay for them. They may or may not be sensitive to price. This misalignment of incentives can be seen in medicine where insurance companies and the government pay for the medicine they prescribe, not the doctors. This discourages incentives to provide lower costs as students are captive consumers: they have to buy the book.


In Rhode Island, universities which signed up to the initiative pledge to look at open-source alternatives which will be provided by working with faculty to find openly licensed textbooks that would fit their classes. The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition will help university librarians help find suitable texts.

While the effort will hardly put a dent in the overall astronomical cost of college, or the $1.2 trillion in outstanding student debt, it’s at least a start.