New Report Finds Switching To Open Textbooks Saves Students Thousands

For Immediate Release

BOSTON, Mass. (September 30, 2010) — On the heels of a new federal law on textbook affordability, the Student PIRGs today released a report calling rentals, e-books and e-readers short-term remedies, and hailing open textbooks as the next step to rein in runaway costs.  Already, more than 1,300 professors across the country are using open textbooks – which are free online, affordable in print and openly licensed – saving students 80% on average according to the new report.  With textbook prices rising more than four times the rate of inflation, the Student PIRGs call on publishers, colleges and government to support the creation of more open textbooks.

“I was involved in one of the first efforts to create an open textbook for community college students,” says Hal Plotkin, Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary of Education, who is the former president of the board of trustees at the Foothill-De Anza Community College District based in California’s Silicon Valley. “What we learned then is not only are open textbooks helpful to students for whom the cost of conventional textbooks is a barrier, they also help improve the quality of teaching and learning.”

Earlier today, Plotkin joined faculty and students on a conference call to release the report and discuss next steps on textbook affordability following the newly effective federal law.  On July 1st, a set of landmark provisions from the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 became effective, mandating that publishers disclose textbook prices to professors during the marketing process.

“In my experience, virtually all of my fellow faculty members are conscious of how expensive textbooks have become,” said D. Steven White, Professor of Marketing & International Business at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.  “I’ve decided to adopt open source texts in all three of my courses next spring. Expected savings for the 115 students is nearly $14,000.”

The new report, entitled A Cover To Cover Solution: How Open Textbooks Are The Path To Textbook Affordability, evaluates cost-reducing options from the traditional textbook market – rentals, e-books and e-readers – and open textbooks as potential next steps to reduce the high cost of textbooks.  The report finds that student attitudes toward digital textbooks and renting vary widely, and that any solution must accommodate many different preferences to extend the benefits to all students.  Rentals, e-books and e-readers do not appeal to all students, and therefore cannot be long-term solutions.  Open textbooks are a long-term solution, because they offer a range of affordable options including print copies, PDFs and free web-based versions that can reduce costs for all students.  The report concludes that promoting new models like open textbooks should be the next step toward making textbooks affordable.

The report is based on a survey of 1,428 students from ten campuses and an analysis of prices for 100 textbooks from 10 common college courses.  Among the major findings are:

1. Student preferences regarding renting and digital textbooks vary widely.

  • Nine out of ten (93%) of the students would rent at least some of their textbooks, but only a third (34%) would rent all of them.
  • 75% of the students surveyed said print was their preferred format; a total of 25% chose digital (21% chose e-textbooks and 4% chose e-readers).

Lon Mitchell, Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Virginia Commonwealth University helped start a project to publish print copies of high-quality open textbooks through print on demand. “The almost $200 difference in price with the previous text saves an average class of 35 VCU students over $5,000 in textbook costs.”

2. Cost-reducing options for traditional textbooks offer limited savings, because they do not appeal to all students.

  • Traditional textbook options, which include rentals, e-books and e-readers, could reduce the average cost of textbooks by 34% from $900 to $598 per year.

“Options like rentals and e-books will remain important cost-saving tools for students in the short term, and we encourage colleges and publishers to expand their offerings.  However, we must also strive for a solution like open textbooks that will reduce costs for all students,” said Nicole Allen, Textbooks Advocate for the Student PIRGs.

3. Open textbooks can reduce costs dramatically for all students and have the potential for long-term sustainability.

  • Open textbooks could reduce the average cost of textbooks by 80% from $900 to $184 per year.
  • Authors and publishers of open textbooks could recover their costs through the sale of print copies and other optional items: 60% of the students from a previous survey would buy a low-cost print copy even though the full text is available free online.

“What I liked most was that I had options,” said Donald Pass, a student at Cerritos College outside Los Angeles who was assigned an open textbook for one of his classes.  “I can read it free online, purchase a print copy with study aids, or I can print it myself.  Probably the most interesting and helpful thing to me is that I can read it on my smart phone.”

The report acknowledges that the success of open textbooks depends on the development of sustainable publishing models.  Some companies have already begun to explore such models.  The publisher Flat World Knowledge offers more than 20 open textbooks, which are available free online and in a variety of other affordable formats including print and PDF.  So far, the company has been able to generate revenue through the sale of such optional items.  It even pays royalties to authors.

“Royalties on my Flat World books are tracking my other [traditionally published] books, so it looks like that payback will be faster and greater,” said Mason Carpenter, M. Keith Weikel Chair and Professor of Leadership at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, who is a successful author of both traditional and open textbooks.  “Personally, it also feels good to be able offer students a high quality learning experience, and choices about how much they pay.”

For a full copy of the report, visit

About the Student PIRGs 

The Student Public Interest Research Groups is a national network of non-profit, non-partisan student advocacy groups that work on public interest issues pertaining to the environment, consumer protection and government reform.