Colorado Lawmakers Can Help College Students Get Free, Open Textbooks

Open Educational Resources like open textbooks can help students save thousands. A bill in the Colorado legislature would support open textbooks by expanding the state’s grant program for professors to create open educational resources and requiring colleges and universities to let students know if their courses have open educational resources

Credit: Germanna CC via Flickr CC BY 2.0
Allison Conwell

It’s time to make higher education affordable and fixing the broken textbook market is a key piece of that.

Attending college in America is one of the largest expenses someone will ever have in their lifetime. Absurd textbook prices, decreasing student aid, scams targeting students and more add to this burden. This debt carries lifelong consequences for students, including impacting where they live, the kind of careers they pursue, when they start a family, if they can purchase a home, and whether they can save for retirement. 

One expense that can prevent college students from finishing their degrees is the high cost of textbooks. Textbook prices have risen three times faster than inflation, leaving the average student now budgeting more than $1,200 every year for materials.

We’ve also seen how the movement to access codes, digital codes that students have to buy to have temporary access to an online learning suite where they can view their textbook and submit their homework online, have not met students’ cries for lower course material costs. Our 2020 report, Fixing the Broken Textbook Market: Second Edition, surveyed nearly 4,000 students across the country and found that little has improved regarding students’ ability to afford textbooks in the six years since the first edition of the report was published. Two thirds of students surveyed reported not buying or renting assigned textbooks because they cost too much, and 17 percent of students reported not buying an access code because it cost too much. 

Course materials are getting so expensive that students are using financial aid to pay for them. Our 2016 report, Covering the Cost, found that nearly 30% of surveyed students used financial aid to pay for textbooks, instead of using it to pay for more direct expenses like tuition or room and board. Traditionally, financial aid went to these more direct expenses, so finding such a large percent of students using their financial aid to pay for textbooks reveals that the cost of textbooks can now pose a severe financial burden on students.

One solution to the rising cost of textbooks is having classes use open textbooks. Open textbooks are textbooks under an open copyright. When textbooks are published under an open copyright, they can be reused, adapted, and republished with few restrictions. Professors and students can use these textbooks for free, allowing students to save hundreds to thousands of dollars throughout their college careers. When professors use open textbooks in their courses, they ensure that students can succeed in their classes regardless of their socioeconomic status.

Despite these benefits, open textbooks have not been widely adopted. According to a survey of university faculty conducted by Babson Survey Research Group in 2017, one in five faculty members were satisfied with the price of available course materials in the traditional market, but half of surveyed faculty members reported that it was difficult to find open educational resources, like open textbooks, to fit their courses. 

There is a wide range of open course material that professors can use to create open textbooks to fit their classes, one example being Rice University’s OpenStax. But courses are not one-size-fits-all situations, and currently available open textbooks may not fit what professors need for their courses. If a professor wants to create an open textbook for their course, they have to spend a lot of time pouring over the available materials. 

Some colleges and universities have grant programs to help professors create the best open textbook for their courses. Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts has a grant program to support faculty who want to create open textbooks for their courses. According to our 2018 report, Open 101, institutions like Greenfield Community College that have open educational resources like open textbooks help students save a lot of money on textbooks. Students at Greenfield Community College spent an average of $31 per courses on course materials, while students at Hudson County Community College in New Jersey, a similar school that did not have open educational resources at the time of the report’s publication, spent an average of $103 per course on course materials. Grant programs like the one that supports Greenfield Community College faculty can therefore jumpstart faculty creating their own open textbooks and help students get big savings on course materials. In that report, we recommend that colleges and universities set up grant programs like Greenfield Community College’s to support the transition to open textbooks. 

However, colleges and universities aren’t the only entities that can or should tackle the exorbitant cost of textbooks and help students. Lawmakers can create grant programs to support professors who want to create open textbooks for their courses and require colleges and universities to let students know which courses use open educational resources. 

Colorado state legislators are taking action to promote open educational resources and help students afford course materials. Senators Chris Hansen (D) and Bob Rankin (R) and Representatives Herod (D) and McCluskie (D) are sponsoring SB21-215, which would expand the state’s grant program for professors to create open educational resources and require colleges and universities to let students know if their courses have open educational resources. The bill is making its way through the legislature, and legislators should support this important program. 

Students have cried for help affording textbooks for too long, and, especially during the COVID pandemic when many students’ budgets are even tighter, we need to deliver them the relief they need. I’m excited for the Colorado legislature to act. 


Allison Conwell