How 'open textbooks' could ease college sticker shock

A bill in Congress proposes creating free, online textbooks to help make college more affordable. 

Mel Evans/AP/File
Shoppers browse at the newly opened Barnes & Noble book store at The College of New Jersey, Aug. 19, 2015, in Ewing Township, N.J.

A bill introduced in the Senate last week could soften the blow of college textbooks prices.

An average US college student spends about $1,225 per year on books and supplies, according to the College Board, but the Affordable College Textbook Act could change that.

If passed, the act would provide grants to colleges and universities to digitize their textbooks, creating "open textbooks" that are free, searchable, and accessible 24/7 to students, professors, researchers, and anyone else.

"When it comes to paying for college, one thing that's often overlooked is the rising cost of textbooks and supplies," said bill co-sponsor Al Franken (D) of Minnesota. "By expanding access to free online textbooks, our bill would help address this problem and allow students and families to keep more of their hard-earned money."

Since 1977, textbook prices have increased by more than 1,000 percent – more than three times the overall rate of inflation.

That's prohibitive for many students. In a survey conducted by US Public Interest Research Group in 2014, 65 percent of students admitted to not buying all their required or recommended textbooks because it was too expensive.

"For students and families that are already struggling to afford a college education, it’s not just an expensive textbook anymore – it’s a serious barrier," said Ethan Senack, a higher education advocate at USPIRG.

"When buying a textbook becomes a barrier to education, you know something has to be changed," agreed Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D) of Texas, who introduced the House version of the bill.

Mr. Senack added, "This bill restores some competition to an industry where just a handful of publishing giants have managed to prevent it, saving students a ton of money and potentially improving student outcomes at the same time. It’s a no-brainer."

This approach already works, said Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois, who sponsored the Senate bill, in a press release. An open source textbook, created in his home state with federal funds, is currently used by more than 60,000 students from various colleges, he said.

"At least a dozen schools throughout the country have contacted the University of Illinois about the text or are using it today," said Durbin. "The Affordable College Textbook Act can replicate and build on the successes we’ve already seen in Illinois."

In recent years, book rentals, e-textbooks, and used-book markets have emerged as wallet-friendlier alternatives to new textbooks, but their prices are often dictated by the cost of a new print edition.

"College students spend thousands of dollars on textbooks over the course of their academic career," said Sen. Angus King (I)  of Maine, a Senate co-sponsor. "As the cost of those textbooks increases, the harder it becomes to afford them, which only forces students to reach deeper into their pockets or risk jeopardizing their academic careers."

He added, "Creative programs like these can help position students to succeed academically while saving them money – a win-win for their future."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to How 'open textbooks' could ease college sticker shock
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today