Groups target textbook prices to rein in college costs

A push to create free or inexpensive textbooks is gaining momentum as educators, philanthropists and policymakers nationwide search for new ways to rein in college costs.

The state of Washington last fall launched an electronic library of books for 42 popular community college courses that are free online and cost no more than $30 in print, and it is set to add books for 39 more courses this year. The president of California’s senate last week proposed a similar library for 50 courses at California’s public colleges. In a plan funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other non-profit groups, Rice University this month announced it will provide free online textbooks for five of the nation’s most-attended college courses. Rice officials estimate students in the USA could save $90 million over the next five years.

It’s all aimed at providing cheaper alternatives to traditional textbooks, which can cost more than $150 apiece. “Everyone is trying to figure out how to keep higher education affordable, and doing it in a way that does not impact income to the university,” says David Ernst, who is spearheading a University of Minnesota project that encourages faculty to adopt cheaper books.

Commercial publishers typically own the rights to content they produce, while the alternative materials — often called “open textbooks” or “open educational resources” are published under a license that allows the public to access them for free online. Typically, a print version can be purchased for a relatively small fee.

Students already are gravitating toward cheaper options, including renting or buying used books. Those attending four-year colleges spent on average $598 in 2010-11, down from $677 in 2008-09, according to national surveys by market research firm Student Monitor. More than 40% said they didn’t purchase all required books, primarily because they couldn’t afford them.

Commercial publishers also are producing lower-cost versions. Cengage’s 4LTR Press, which combines print and online content, saved students $50 million over the past three years, says the Association of American Publishers. Several universities, including Cornell and University of California-Berkeley, are cutting deals with publishers to charge students a lower price for an e-textbook this semester than what they would have paid on their own.

The publishers’ group also argues that their members offer higher quality. “If you ignore what works in favor of a movement to give something away that may not work, then you’ve done more damage than good,” spokesman Bruce Hildebrand says.

But advocates of open textbooks say the growing array of options are getting better.

“There is so much going on right now,” says Nicole Allen, who directs a textbook campaign for U.S. PIRG, a national public interest advocacy group. “We’re starting to see states and institutions stepping up and actually investing in a solution, which I think is a really, really promising sign.”