Putting a Dent in College Costs With Open-Source Textbooks

College students could save an average of $128 a course if traditional textbooks were replaced with free or low-cost “open-source” electronic versions, a new report finds.

The Student Public Interest Research Groups, state-based advocacy groups that promote affordable textbook options, analyzed open-source pilot programs at five colleges and found that the savings for students can be significant.

While the price of textbooks at four-year schools pales in comparison to the cost of tuition, the cost still can weigh heavily on students with tight budgets. The average cost for books and supplies for the current academic year is between $1,200 and $1,300, depending on the type of school attended, according to the College Board.

Textbook costs are particularly burdensome for students at two-year community colleges; the cost, more than $1,300, is about 40 percent of the average cost of tuition, according to the College Board.

Previous research by the Student PIRGs found that the high cost of textbooks can interfere with education. Some students, for instance, may delay buying the required text for a class, and fall behind; or they simply don’t buy it at all, putting themselves at a disadvantage.

Open-source textbooks are created under an open license, so they can be downloaded free or printed at low cost; instructors can even rearrange the sequence of material, to suit their preference. There’s a movement to make faculty-written, peer-reviewed open-source textbooks available to professors and students, to help keep a lid on the cost of textbooks.

The University of Minnesota’s Open Textbook Library has more than 160 titles, and OpenStax College, a foundation-funded nonprofit affiliated with Rice University, offers a dozen titles, mainly focused on widely offered introductory courses, with more in production.

Jennifer Swain, 21, a student at South Florida State College, said her instructor for a physics class used an open-source textbook (College Physics, from OpenStax). She likes that she can download it onto an app on her iPad that allows her to highlight sections of text, just as she could in a traditional textbook — but this one is free, whereas a comparable hard copy physics text would cost about $250. A classmate, Ashley Edmonson, 24, said it’s convenient to access the textbook from any device, so she doesn’t have to lug around another tome: “They’re really hard to carry,” she said.

(Students can also lease digital textbooks to avoid carrying a heavy backpack, but students must pay for access, which typically expires after a certain period of time.)

David Ernst, chief information officer at the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development and the creator of the Open Textbook Library, said professors, busy with teaching and research responsibilities, often don’t know that quality open-source textbooks are available. He travels to universities giving presentations about the burden of textbook costs on students, and how open-source books can help; afterward, professors often adopt an open-source text. “They’re the ones who decide what books to use,” he said. “It’s about awareness.

Here are some questions about textbook costs:

Q. How can I find out if my school uses open-source textbooks?

A. You can ask the instructor if using an open-source textbook is an option, or check with your school library; some schools participate in an open-source network. Ideally, you should use the specific textbook your professor assigns. But if you’re really tight on cash, you might ask if using a comparable open-source book is acceptable, said Nicole Allen, director of Open Education at the Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition.

Q. Are there any other lower-cost options, if an open-source text isn’t available?

A. There are now many online textbook shopping sites available, like Chegg.com and Amazon, so you can compare prices or see if there’s a cheaper, used version of a required book available. A tool called Occupy the Bookstore, available as an extension on the Chrome browser, overlays on the website of some campus bookstore websites and shows you the price charged by other sellers for the same book.

Q. How can I determine whether buying or renting traditional textbooks is a better deal?

A. In general, renting requires less cash upfront, and can make sense if it’s for a single-semester course; buying may be best if it’s a yearlong course, and may allow you to recoup some of your cost by selling it when you’re done. CampusBooks.com, an online textbook comparison site, says it offers a “rent v. buy” comparison, to help you determine which option is best for a specific textbook based on its current price and estimated resale value.