States are moving to cut college costs by introducing open-source textbooks

States are realizing that college textbooks are “prohibitively expensive”
States are realizing that college textbooks are “prohibitively expensive”
Image: AP/Bebeto Matthews
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Every cost associated with higher learning has steadily increased over the past decade, but none more so than college textbooks. While tuition increased by 63% between 2006 and 2016, and housing costs increased by 50%, the cost of textbooks went up by 88%, according to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Initiatives in Maryland and New York are attempting to curb those costs by adopting open-source, copyright-free textbooks.

The University System of Maryland recently announced that it would be giving out 21 “mini-grants” to seven community colleges and five public four-year schools. The grants will go to “faculty who are adopting, adapting or scaling the use of OER [open educational resources] in Fall 2017 through high-enrollment courses where quality OER exists,” according to the announcement.

Open educational resources are materials like electronic textbooks that typically use licenses that are far less restrictive than traditional, copyrighted textbooks. That means they can be limitlessly duplicated and distributed to students, and even revised to suit the needs of a given class. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was a pioneer of this approach when it began making its course materials open to the public in 2001, using Creative Commons licenses and borrowing the ethos of open source programming.

Although the mini-grants are only $500 to $2,500 each, the effort in Maryland is expected to save 8,000 students up to $1.3 million in the Fall 2017 semester alone. That’s a significant amount, but just a drop in the bucket of what students in the state spend on textbooks each year.

“Since 1978, the cost of textbooks has risen 812%, outpacing even the cost of medical services and new housing,” the announcement says. “Nationally, students spend an average of $1,200 a year on textbooks. Within Maryland alone, 2-year and 4-year students spend over $223 million in textbooks.”

Another big investment in open educational resources came in the budget passed in New York state last week. The news was somewhat buried by the fact that the budget includes free tuition for New York students whose families make up to $125,000 a year, but the state will also be putting $8 million into open source materials over the next fiscal year.

“As the cost of textbooks can be prohibitively expensive, the Budget also invests $8 million to provide open educational resources, including electronic-books, to students at SUNY and CUNY,” according to the budget announcement. “At the state’s direction, SUNY and CUNY will use this funding to target high-enrollment courses, including general education, to maximize student savings.”

This represents an important new influx of cash for New York’s open education initiatives, which the State University of New York System has already been investing in for five years.

These are just the most recent developments of a growing trend; many other states have begun adopting open education resources as well. And if the initiatives are successful, we can probably expect them to continue.