The College Board reports that four-year university students living on campus spend an average of $1,250 a year on books and supplies. The cost of textbooks, as with other higher-education costs, has risen rapidly over the past few decades, at a rate more than three times that of inflation.
Every dollar a student can save matters. That is why Virginia recently passed legislation (HB 454) to mandate that every public institution of higher education in the state create a framework to adopt and use open educational resources and low-cost resources across the state. Open educational resources are free and openly licensed learning materials. The motivation behind the bill was the need to establish a framework that would encourage academic leaders and faculty to adopt such materials in the future.
One of us is the legislator who introduced and championed the bill, and the other is a former administrator at Virginia’s Tidewater Community College — a national leader in the use of open educational resources — and is now president of an organization dedicated to improving college affordability. We believe lawmakers should follow the example of Virginia and more than a dozen other states in adopting legislation to encourage the use of open educational resources.
With rising higher education costs, it is often the students with the most need who are punished by high textbook costs. A 2014 survey found that 65 percent of students did not buy a book because it was too expensive, and 94 percent of those students said they were worried their grade would suffer because of it. The problem does not appear to be going away on its own. A 2017 survey found that 85 percent of students had delayed or avoided buying textbooks, and half of those students said their grades were negatively affected by doing so.
Open educational resource legislation allows faculty and administrators to create opportunities for these students to ensure that price is not the reason they do not succeed in classes. In March, Congress recognized this and designated $5 million in the fiscal 2018 budget to supporting a federal competitive grant pilot program that encouraged institutions to “create new open textbooks or expand their use to achieve savings for students while maintaining or improving instruction and student learning outcomes.”
Virginia’s community colleges have long been ahead of the curve with regard to open educational resources. Students at Tidewater are saving millions through the use of openly available resources. In 2013, the college created what it calls the “Z degree,” in which students who are earning a business administration degree do not pay a cent for textbooks. Every class required by the program, including general education courses, uses open educational resources. Other Virginia colleges are similarly leading the way. Students at Central Virginia Community College can take 30 classes without purchasing textbooks, which has so far saved them $250,000.
Albeit early, Virginia’s policy imperative, and the early successes of institutions such as Tidewater, are paving the way for state efforts to eliminate barriers to students using low- or no-cost resources. Higher education costs go beyond tuition and fees, and so must our thinking, if we are to ensure our students’ success.