A push for free college textbooks

During his nearly four years at UC Berkeley, Lucas Zucker has gone to great lengths to find affordable textbooks. He shopped online for the best deals and often waited weeks into the semester for the books to arrive from across the country; he shared books with classmates; he bought older editions with identical content that was rearranged; and one semester he didn’t buy some books because they were just too expensive.

“I couldn’t imagine what could possibly make any book cost $200,” the senior told members of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee at a hearing Wednesday afternoon.

Increases in textbook prices now outpace the rate of fee increases at the University of California and California State University, testified State Auditor Elaine Howle. As part of a 2008 report prepared at the committee’s request, Howle’s office surveyed students and found the average price of textbooks represents about 13 percent of the cost of a UC education, 22 percent at Cal State, and 59 percent for community college students – more than they pay for classes.

A survey by the consumer group CALPIRG revealed that 70 percent of students found themselves in the same predicament as Zucker and didn’t buy at least one required textbook due to the cost.

Student fees at UC and CSU rose by about 18 percent from 2004–05 through 2007–08, while the retail price for the textbooks increased by 28 percent. (Source: California Auditor) Click to enlarge.
Student fees at UC and CSU rose by about 18 percent from 2004–05 through 2007–08, while the retail price for the textbooks increased by 28 percent. (Source: California Auditor) Click to enlarge.

At a time when fees at California’s public colleges and universities are rising faster than an econ major can calculate the rate of inflation, the added burden of spending thousands of dollars on books is the college deal breaker for some students. So the committee focused much of the three-hour hearing on what California is doing to develop free digital texts.

“We have a completely broken system,” said former state senator Dean Florez, now president and CEO of 20 Million Minds Foundation, a nonprofit working to provide open source texts than can be modified by professors to create customized books for their classes. “Digital gives us a unique opportunity to end used books, to say that students can purchase a new, up-to-date book every time for the lowest possible cost.”

A number of companies have already entered the arena, the splashiest being Apple, which last month unveiled its new iBooks 2 digital textbook service for the iPad. It features interactive animation, photos, videos, and other cool tools, but requires cash-strapped schools to buy iPads for every student.

Nonprofits and foundations are offering something that’s more within reach.

“Access and affordability are integrally linked,” said Barbara Chow, Education Program Director for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. She told the panel research has shown that while rental and e-books can reduce costs, “open educational texts are the clear winners,” reducing textbook prices by as much as 80 percent.

Chow noted that a number of universities outside California have made significant advances in access and quality of the online materials.  Although there is an upfront cost of producing the materials, she said the savings can quickly catch up.  An open course library in the state of Washington recouped its start-up costs in the first year.

Arizona State University took it a step further.  A machine in the bookstore lets students print open source texts for $20, so they have a hard copy to write notes in the margins and highlight passages.

In 2008, Hewlett invested $10 million in grants to develop Open Educational Resources (OER), including more than half a million dollars to the Foothill-De Anza Community College District to pilot the Community College Open Textbook Project. It’s now affiliated with more than 200 colleges and conducts peer reviews of open source textbooks and works to raise awareness of the online books among faculty.

Even though open source gives faculty more control over their course materials, many have been slow to take to it.  “There are real challenges here with this new world of multiple formats,” explained James Postma, chair of the CSU Academic Senate.  “Faculty have to play the role of technical troubleshooters.  It has changed the job of faculty.”  For instance, Postma has to develop correlation guides so students know where to find the reading assignments depending on whether they’re using an iPad, iPod or laptop.

In December, State Senate pro Tem Darrell Steinberg made open source a key legislative initiative with a proposal to create Open Educational Resources in California that would give undergraduates free access to fifty core textbooks, and let them buy printed copies for about $20.  He said the legislation would save students nearly $1,000 a year.  [Click here to watch a YouTube video of his press conference announcing the proposal].

Textbook publishers weren’t vilified at the hearing, but they were taken to the woodshed for their practice of publishing new editions every few years that have minimal changes in content, but move the chapters around enough to make it confusing for students working with earlier versions.  For that, they up the price by about 12 percent.

Bruce Hildebrand, Executive Director of the Higher Education Division of the Association of American Publishers, walked a fine line at the hearing, wanting to play nicely while not giving up too much profit. “We were committed to the [state auditor’s] report, but as you can expect, we were cautious,” said Hildebrand.  “It’s going to have to be a partnership.  Are our prices coming down?  Yes, in some instances.”

Publishers may want to get those partnerships going sooner than later if they hope to remain relevant and solvent.  Groups like 20 Million Minds have already created a lot of alternative materials and there’s a demand for more, especially from students, said CSU’s Postma. “The term textbook is almost obsolete in this world.”