In 2007, Illinois Valley Community College in Oglesby, Ill., began the Textbook Rental Option Program to alleviate some of the burden of high textbook prices. (Scott Anderson/NewsTribune via Associated Press)

EVERY YEAR, college students shell out thousands of dollars for tuition. Then they face an additional cost: textbooks. Students spend as much as $1,300 over their college careers on books alone — a burden that falls most heavily on those who have to take out loans to pay. A pilot program from a community college reform group just outside Washington, D.C., could help.

Education advocacy group Achieving the Dream this month announced $9.8 million in grants for developing degree programs that use online, open-source materials instead of pricey printed books. The initiative takes advantage of teaching resources in the public domain to cut costs for at least 76,000 students at 38 community colleges in 13 states. One of those is in Maryland, and six are in Virginia.

Textbook prices have soared in the past decade, rising 82 percent between 2003 and 2013 — almost three times the rate of inflation. It doesn’t help that some publishers release new editions of their textbooks each year, so students looking for a required text can’t buy used. Those financial barriers force students to fall behind in their classes, lowering their grades and raising withdrawal rates.

Textbook costs pose problems everywhere, but they do the most damage at community colleges, which draw a larger share of disadvantaged students. OpenStax, a nonprofit that produces peer-reviewed, open-source textbooks, estimates it has saved more than $66 million for nearly 700,000 students — over half of those in the past year. Though some of those students attend community colleges, the majority study at four-year institutions. By focusing on two-year programs, Achieving the Dream hopes to fix the hole that most needs a patch — not just for the schools it funds, but also for other colleges that adopt the programs its grantees will develop.

It’s important work, and it’s hard: When your product is free, there’s not much opportunity for profit. Achieving the Dream received funding for its grants from a few charitable organizations, but it may need more to scale up the initiative after the pilot program ends. OpenStax also relies primarily on philanthropy, as well as partnerships with publishers who sell value-added services — such as quizzes and problem sets — on top of the free core content. Policymakers could help by providing additional funding. Yet it’s also up to schools to take advantage of the resources already available. By integrating open-source materials into their curriculums, colleges would make learning better and cheaper at the same time.