MASSPIRG calls for free open college textbooks

MASSPIRG called on state legisaltive committee to prioritize free open college text books over commercial digital books with access codes.


Testimony in Opposition to H.1249 and S.770

An Act establishing a special commission to review opportunities to reduce the costs of higher

education by improving the utilization of digital learning technology


MASSPIRG along with our sister organization MASSPIRG Students urge you to oppose  H.1249, An Act establishing a special commission to review opportunities to reduce the costs of higher education by improving the utilization of digital learning technology.  While we commend the stated objectives of the bill to reduce the cost of textbooks and make college more affordable, we feel the mechanisms in the bill are duplicative of work currently being done by the Dept of Higher Ed’s OER Working Group and urge you to consider those findings when their work has completed before moving this bill.

MASSPIRG is one of the state’s leading consumer advocacy organizations working to protecting consumers for 45 years. We are a non-profit, not partisan member-supported organization working with USPIRG our national affiliate and Massachusetts Student PIRG which has 12 college chapters at schools from the Berkshires to the South Shore. We commend the bill sponsors for their support for affordable education. But, we have a number of concerns with this current language that must be addressed before the bill moves forward. As introduced, this bill creates a commission to investigate textbook costs, and attempts to incentivize adoption of free open textbooks and lower-cost but still a problem, commercial products like access codes and e-textbooks.

First, some background on the issue of textbook costs. MassPIRG’s own research shows that here in the Bay State and all across the country, 65% of students are skipping buying books – print or digital –  because of costs – costs that have risen three times faster than inflation over the past few decades. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, undergraduate students at four-year public colleges spend an average of $1,298 per year on textbooks according to the College Board. That’s in part because a handful of powerful publishers are abusing their place in the market, and using tactics like frequent new editions which cost more and undercut the used book market. More recently, some publishers have used expiring digital materials like access codes – where a student must pay to not only have access to the digital textbook but must also use that code to submit their homework or take exams.

If we’re going to address the skyrocketing cost of textbooks, we need to promote open textbooks, which are free for students to access, rather than these digital options. Already, institutions like MIT, UMass Amherst, and Northern Essex Community College have made great strides in promoting open education as an alternative to pricey commercial books.

Our concerns:

The proposed commission in House Bill 1249/S770 fails to properly give a voice to students who are directly affected by this issue. While MASSPIRG is pleased to see the committee include administrators from a diverse cohort of institutions, we are deeply troubled that two out of the eleven seats will consist of representatives from the “college textbook/technology publishing industry.” And, there are no seats for the people who are on the front lines working with these materials- namely students, faculty, and librarians. It’s a big oversight to not include them.

Additionally, the bill does not adequately prioritize free open textbooks. Instead it allows for more digital material with access codes, resulting in the continuation of high cost barriers just to submit class work or take exams. Further, we have many concerns over the student data collected and used by the publishers of digital material, which could take up a whole hearing on its own. 

Finally, this bill is duplicative of the great work currently being done by the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education’s Open Education Resources (OER) Working Group. They are already soliciting feedback and writing a report to make policy recommendations for this committee. The Dept. of Higher Ed has already placed support behind materials which create an open, accessible and affordable future for education through the support of Open Textbooks and we urge them to adopt the feedback from the OER Working Group, which has been meeting over the course of the past year.

For these reasons we urge you not to support this bill, but rather wait to consider the recommendations from the Department of Higher Education OER working group. Now more than ever, it is critical that we work together to defend our students from textbook publishers looking to profit in a broken marketplace. Citizens of the commonwealth deserve higher education that is affordable and accessible, and open textbooks are a key part of making that dream a reality. Thank you.

For more information please see our reports:

Access Denied,
 how access codes hurt students


Fixing the Broken Textbooks Market, how 65% of students have skipped buying books because of costs



Deirdre Cummings

Legislative Director, MASSPIRG

Deirdre runs MASSPIRG’s public health, consumer protection and tax and budget programs. Deirdre has led campaigns to improve public records law and require all state spending to be transparent and available on an easy-to-use website, close $400 million in corporate tax loopholes, protect the state’s retail sales laws to reduce overcharges and preserve price disclosures, reduce costs of health insurance and prescription drugs, and more. Deirdre also oversees a Consumer Action Center in Weymouth, Mass., which has mediated 17,000 complaints and returned $4 million to Massachusetts consumers since 1989. Deirdre currently resides in Maynard, Mass., with her family. Over the years she has visited all but one of the state's 351 towns — Gosnold.

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