Release of New Report: Open 101

The Student PIRGs

WASHINGTON, DC– Skyrocketing textbook prices for common university courses are adding insult to the burdensome debt students assume to pay for college. Earlier today, the US Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG) released a new report, investigating those high textbook prices for common courses at schools across the country. Entitled Open 101: an Action Plan for Affordable Textbooks, the report contains recommendations that, if enacted, could save students billions of dollars by ensuring the materials that students buy for their general education classes is free instead.

“To bring down the cost of higher education, we have to take every opportunity we get,” said U.S. Representative Jared Polis. “We’re only beginning to see the start of the OER (open educational resources) revolution, and it could save students thousands of dollars.”

Over the past decade, the price of textbook prices has risen more than four times the rate of inflation. While students can save money with some digital materials and the used books market, publishers have found ways to charge high prices. Many professors using publisher materials require students to purchase more restrictive and costly products such as access codes, which hide homework and quizzes behind an online paywall. As a result, the average student budgets over $1,200 on textbooks and supplies each year, according to the College Board.

“Students often find that they spend the most on textbooks in their first few years of school, when they’re taking introductory classes such as statistics and psychology,” said Kaitlyn Vitez, higher education advocate for USPIRG. “These courses are the ones that increasingly use textbooks bundled with expensive access codes. Thousands of free and open textbooks are available online for these core classes, so it’s frankly absurd. It’s high time that we took action to combat high textbook prices.”

“With open educational resources, there are no access codes and students never lose access to their core content,” said Nicole Finkbeiner, associate director of institutional relations for OpenStax, an open textbooks publisher based at Rice University in Texas. “This enables students to continue to use and refer to their core content as they move forward in their studies, when studying for advancement exams, and in their professional lives, without any additional costs or barriers.”

Open educational resources (OER) consist of more than just digital textbooks with an open copyright, Vitez notes. They can include textbooks, articles, and even sample problem sets and quizzes just like those that major publishers include as a perk behind pricey access codes. Regardless, these open materials are easy to edit into customized materials, are peer reviewed, and free for students to access online.

Key findings from the report include:

  1. Schools that have invested in open educational resources (OER) generated significant savings for their students. OER are digital materials that are accessed for free online, and carry many other benefits for both students and professors. For example, in Massachusetts, Greenfield Community College’s use of OER in introductory courses meant that students there spent an average of $31 per course on materials in the 6 courses in our study, compared to a national average of $153.

  2. When publishers bundle a textbook with an access code, it eliminates most opportunities for students to cut costs with the used book market. For forty five percent of the classes in our sample, the materials were only available at the campus bookstore. This eliminated cheaper used options and meant that students were forced to pay full price for these materials. In psychology, for example, students assigned a bundled access code paid $114 on average. If their professor assigned just a textbook, the average new price was $170 at the bookstore, but students could save sixty-eight percent by shopping used online.

  3. This means that switching course materials in these core courses from access codes and traditional textbooks to OER would save students $1.5 billion dollars a year if adopted nationwide.

“The opportunities that exist for us to continue to champion real, meaningful change in higher education are right in front of us,” said Blake Humphrey, the student body president at West Virginia University. “Students in America’s trade schools, colleges, and universities deserve high quality, low cost learning materials, and that is what open textbooks provide.” Student governments across the country have acted on the issue of more affordable textbooks, such as Humphrey’s move to start an OER council on campus to coordinate efforts to transition to open textbooks.

Change won’t happen without the cooperation of all stakeholders. So, beyond the price comparison for the core classes, the report makes recommendations for decision makers to increase the use of OER and to reduce the impact of unfair publisher practices.

“Publishers’ prices can change, while open access material will always be free. We need to ensure that students pay less to succeed and stay in college after they’ve worked so hard to get there.” Vitez said.

Find the full report at:

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U.S. PIRG is a non-profit, non-partisan consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. The Student PIRGs are independent statewide student organizations that work on issues like environmental protection, consumer protection, and hunger and homelessness.