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."

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