In fight for more affordable education, look to core classes

For Immediate Release

Kaitlyn Vitez, Higher Education Advocate
U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group)
(908) 894-0642
[email protected]

In fight for more affordable education, look to core classes

WASHINGTON, DC– Skyrocketing textbook prices for common university courses are adding insult to the burdensome debt students assume to pay for college. Earlier today, the Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs) released a new report investigating those high textbook prices for common courses at schools across the country. Entitled Open 101: an Action Plan for Affordable Textbooks, the report contains recommendations that, if enacted, could save students billions of dollars by ensuring the materials that students buy for their general education classes are free instead.

“To bring down the cost of higher education, we have to take every opportunity we get,” said U.S. Representative Jared Polis. “We’re only beginning to see the start of the OER (open educational resources) revolution, and it could save students thousands of dollars.”

Over the past decade, the price of textbooks has risen more than four times the rate of inflation. While students can save money with some digital materials and the used books market, publishers have found ways to charge high prices. Many professors using publisher materials require students to purchase more restrictive and costly products such as access codes, which hide homework and quizzes behind an online paywall. As a result, the average student budgets over $1,200 on textbooks and supplies each year, according to the College Board.

“Students often find that they spend the most on textbooks in their first few years of school, when they’re taking introductory classes such as statistics and psychology,” said Kaitlyn Vitez, higher education advocate for USPIRG. “These courses are the ones that increasingly use textbooks bundled with expensive access codes. Thousands of free and open textbooks are available online for these core classes, so it’s frankly absurd. It’s high time that we took action to combat high textbook prices.”

“With open educational resources, there are no access codes and students never lose access to their core content,” said Nicole Finkbeiner, associate director of institutional relations for OpenStax, an open textbooks publisher based at Rice University in Texas. “This enables students to continue to use and refer to their core content as they move forward in their studies, when studying for advancement exams, and in their professional lives, without any additional costs or barriers.”

Open educational resources (OER) consist of more than just digital textbooks with an open copyright, Vitez notes. They can include textbooks, articles, and even sample problem sets and quizzes just like those that major publishers include as a perk behind pricey access codes. Regardless, these open materials are easy to edit into customized materials, are peer reviewed, and free for students to access online.

Key findings from the report include:

  1. When publishers bundle a textbook with an access code, it eliminates most opportunities for students to cut costs with the used book market. Of the access code bundles in our sample, forty-five percent—nearly half—were unavailable from any other source we could find except the campus bookstore. This eliminated student’s ability to shop around and meant that they were forced to pay full price for these materials. For the classes using bundles, students would likely be stuck paying full price, whereas for the classes using a textbook only, students could cut costs up to fifty-eight percent by buying used online.
  2. Schools that have invested in open educational resources (OER) generated significant savings for their students. OER are educational materials that can be downloaded or accessed for free online while carrying many other benefits for students and professors. For example, in Massachusetts, Greenfield Community College’s use of OER in three of the six courses in our study meant that students there could spend as little as $31 per course on materials, compared to a national average of $153 per course.
  3. Switching the ten introductory classes in our study to OER nationwide would save students $1.5 billion per year in course materials costs.

“The opportunities that exist for us to continue to champion real, meaningful change in higher education are right in front of us,” said Blake Humphrey, the student body president at West Virginia University. “Students in America’s trade schools, colleges, and universities deserve high quality, low cost learning materials, and that is what open textbooks provide.” Student governments across the country have acted on the issue of more affordable textbooks, such as Humphrey’s move to start an OER council on campus to coordinate efforts to transition to open textbooks.

Change won’t happen without the cooperation of all stakeholders. So, beyond the price comparison for the core classes, the report makes recommendations for decision makers to increase the use of OER and to reduce the impact of unfair publisher practices.

“Publishers’ prices can change, while open access material will always be free. We need to ensure that students pay less to succeed and stay in college after they’ve worked so hard to get there.” Vitez said.

Find the full report here.

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U.S. PIRG is a non-profit, non-partisan consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. The Student PIRGs are independent statewide student organizations that work on issues like environmental protection, consumer protection, and hunger and homelessness.