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College courses without textbooks? These schools are giving it a shot.

In this Feb. 18, 2016 photo, textbooks are seen stacked on a table at Illinois Valley Community College in Oglesby, Ill. In 2007, the school began the Textbook Rental Option Program to alleviate some of the burden of high textbook prices. (Scott Anderson/NewsTribune via AP)
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A community college reform group has selected a handful of schools in Virginia and Maryland to develop degree programs using open-source materials in place of textbooks, an initiative that could save students as much as $1,300 a year.

Such open educational resources — created using open licenses that let students download or print materials for free — have gained popularity as the price of print textbooks have skyrocketed, but courses that use the materials remain a novelty in higher education. Achieving the Dream, an education advocacy group based in Silver Spring, Md., aims to change that by offering $9.8 million in grants to support the development of open-source degree programs at 38 colleges in 13 states.

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Montgomery College Foundation, which raises money for the community college in Maryland, and six institutions in Virginia, including Lord Fairfax Community College, Tidewater Community College and Northern Virginia Community College, are among the schools invited to participate. All of the institutions were selected through a competitive grant process based on their ability to implement open-source degree programs, offer a full slate of courses quickly or scale the number of sections offered to students using the grant money. About 50 percent of the schools already use open-source materials in some classes, while another 20 percent have degree programs that primarily or solely rely on those materials.

Officials at Achieving the Dream say there are enough open-source materials to replace textbooks in all required courses for degrees in business administration, general education, computer science and social science. Colleges participating in the initiative will focus on those four fields of study to the benefit of at least 76,000 students. The schools will turn the material into a digital library for public consumption.

“This effort is designed to accomplish two things that are crucial to completion rates for first-generation, low-income and students of color: Remove financial roadblocks created by textbook costs…[and] offer a new vehicle for using technology and course materials in dynamic and engaging ways,” Karen Stout, president and chief executive of Achieving the Dream, said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

Print textbook prices have climbed 82 percent in the past decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Textbooks can account for a third of the costs community college students encounter. The National Association of College Stores learned in a survey that students spent an average of $323 on course materials in fall 2015. Online marketplaces for used, new, rental or electronic textbooks are helping students save money, as is the emerging open-source market.

Textbook publishers are responding to the sea change in the industry by working with open-source providers or producing digital versions of their hardcover books. David Anderson, executive director of higher education at the Association of American Publishers, said publishers recognize that engaging and interactive digital texts can help improve student performance and are cheaper to produce. Though open educational resources are a direct competitor, Anderson said there is room in the market for digital and open-source providers.

NOVA and Tidewater have been at the forefront of using open educational resources. NOVA’s Extended Learning Institute has a selection of online classes, including English, Economics and Science, that use free open-course materials and digital content. Students can take those courses to complete a General Education Certificate program or an associate’s degree in Social Science or General Studies. Tidewater students can earn a degree in Business Administration without ever buying a book.

“The cost of textbooks is the biggest rip-off in higher education,” said Glenn Dubois, chancellor of the Virginia Community College System. “Too many of our students show up, they enroll and start the first week without a textbook, and that puts them behind the eight ball on the college success measure.”

Dubois said he created a financial incentive for faculty members to develop open-source materials a few years ago. There are now more than 100,000 students enrolled in open educational resource courses at the 23 schools in the Virginia Community College System. The chancellor said course completion rates and grades have gone up with the use of open-source materials, which he credits with opening up a new path for faculty members to publish scholarly work. Dubois pegs the cost savings to students at more than $3 million.

“In an era of tuition increase after tuition increase, at least here in Virginia we can point to a solid way we have helped lower the cost of higher education,” Dubois said. “We’re please to be a part of this consortium of colleges and want to keep taking OER to the next level in Virginia.”

Research suggests the use of free open-access materials can significantly reduce costs and contribute to better grades, higher course completion and faster degree completion. One study by the Student Public Interest Research Groups concluded that students could save an average $128 a course if colleges swapped textbooks for open-source materials. The advocacy group studied open-source pilot programs at five universities, including the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Kansas State University, and found it cost students far less than buying traditional textbooks.

One of the largest providers of open-source materials is OpenStax College, a nonprofit tied to Rice University in Houston. The company produces peer-reviewed digital textbooks for free, and print versions for up to $55, with funding from philanthropists, including the Gates Foundation. Nearly 700,000 students at 1,855 schools have saved more than $68 million using OpenStax materials since the company was founded in 2012, according to the company.

Though a number of community colleges have partnered with OpenStax and other providers, four-year institutions have been the primary beneficiary of open-source innovations. Much of the philanthropy in higher education that funds these sorts of initiatives have been directed at four-year schools, said TJ Bliss, a program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which is funding the open-source initiative.

“We recognize that community colleges are serving students that are disproportionately disadvantaged and who stand to benefit most from needed reform,” he said. “We see this initiative as the beginning of a much broader effort in higher education and see a future where students have unfettered access to educational content that they need to succeed.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect spelling for Glenn Dubois, chancellor of the Virginia Community College System. The story has been updated.

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