How to Get a Degree Without Ever Paying for Textbooks

College students shouldn’t be weighed down by textbook costs.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Over the past few years, the perennial concern over increasing college textbook costs has dovetailed with a larger, more forceful conversation about the rising cost of college. While these conversations are in many ways complementary, the national spotlight has shined brightest on the rising cost of college tuition—and has often left concerns over soaring textbook prices in the shadows.

The good news is that several colleges around the country have begun experimenting with not simply controlling or decreasing textbook costs for students, but eliminating the cost altogether. And the positive gains so far—for both students and faculty—have been more than just financial.

Current estimates put the annual cost of textbooks at $1,328 for the average community college student, an increase of more than 80 percent over the past decade. Because of these costs, according to a recent report published by the United States Public Interest Research Group, almost two-thirds of students have forgone purchasing a textbook for at least one of their classes. More troubling, almost half of students have indicated that the cost of materials has caused them to enroll in fewer courses. That means textbook prices aren’t just driving up student costs—they are also negatively impacting student outcomes and overall time for degree completion.

But high-quality, online, openly licensed educational materials are poised to reverse these trends. A new report by New America’s Education Policy Program on how new technologies are supporting and improving student outcomes illustrates the possible advantages of these open educational resources, or OER. (I work for the Education Policy Program; Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.)

As the report, “Community College Online,” describes, five years ago Scottsdale Community College’s Math Department began working to design open resources for their courses, beginning with introductory mathematics. They created an open textbook, workbook, and homework system that significantly reduced the cost to students for those courses’ materials. Prior to the initiative, textbooks cost students approximately $100 per course. Now materials are free, unless students choose to purchase a hard copy from the bookstore, which rings up at a little less than $30.

Building upon these and other initial efforts, in 2012 David Wiley, who is an adjunct professor at Brigham Young University and the co-founder and chief academic officer of Lumen Learning, held an open-textbook training in Virginia for others looking to implement OER in their classrooms and on their campuses.* Lumen Learning—an organization founded to help K-12 and higher education institutions implement OER—aims to increase the use of “free, high quality open content … to make education more affordable, while at the same time improving student success.” This presentation would serve as inspiration for several new, larger initiatives to eliminate the cost of textbooks for students.

In the audience that day was Daniel DeMarte, vice president for academic affairs and chief academic officer at Tidewater Community College in Virginia. He took the idea back to Tidewater, where he and his colleagues expanded upon it. Their goal wasn’t just to use open textbooks in a few courses: Tidewater wanted to create the first degree program that would have zero associated costs for textbooks. They began calling it the “Z-Degree” option.

Tidewater rolled out its “Z-Degree” for an associate’s degree in business administration (one of the school’s most popular programs) in 2013, just one year later. But it didn’t simply move from a proprietary textbook to the same thing in an open, digital form. Professor Linda Williams says that the move to OER has allowed professors to refocus on teaching to intended learning outcomes, rather than simply teaching the textbook. “At some point we allowed the publishers to control what we teach, and how we teach it,” she said at a recent convening held in Washington, D.C., organized by the Hewlett Foundation. “And they certainly aren’t better suited than we are to do it.”

Pilot initiatives for what other campuses are calling zero-textbook-cost (ZTC) degrees are emerging at institutions across the country: Salt Lake Community College in Utah, eight community college pilots in the state of Washington, and Northern Virginia Community College. The University of Mississippi is one of the first four-year institutions looking into replicating the ZTC degree option for its students.

For the 6.8 million undergraduate students who attend more than 1,000 community colleges throughout the country, eliminating the cost of textbooks is a potential game changer. Not only does it reduce the overall annual cost to students by more than 25 percent (annual tuition for community college is approximately $3,300); it gets rid of the negative incentives students have to forgo purchasing materials and registering for additional courses based on those costs.

A year from now, it may be unlikely that community college tuition will be free—but like Tidewater and other institutions around the country have shown, their textbooks certainly can be.

*Correction, Feb. 24, 2015: This blog post originally misstated the location where David Wiley held a presentation about open educational resources. It was in Virginia, not Arizona.