FY18 Open Textbooks Program Appropriation: the next step toward textbook affordability

“A college degree is essential these days, but I can’t get it if I don’t have the books I need to actually succeed in class,” Walter Dodson, a student at the University of Connecticut, told me. “I’m shocked at how expensive college is right now. I can’t imagine how ridiculous it will be in twenty years.”

Walter’s story isn’t unique. Two-thirds of students have skipped buying books because of the high out-of-pocket cost beyond the set price of tuition. But students who don’t buy books repeatedly say they find themselves at a disadvantage in the classroom. With Americans paying off more than $1.4 trillion in student debt, we need to find ways to cut costs so that these students can graduate on time and start paying off those loans, rather than accumulating more debt.

In today’s long-overdue budget bill, Congress set aside $5 million for open textbook initiatives nationwide, which would replace high-cost publisher materials with free materials that can be accessed online or downloaded. The move could save students more than $50 million — an important step toward alleviating the huge burden of paying for college. In such a long and contentious budget cycle, how did we pull it off?

Three weeks ago, students — those millennials who allegedly lack initiative — asked for it themselves.

They weren’t alone in this effort. For years, U.S PIRG and our allies- especially librarians and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL)- have been working to raise visibility for the huge savings that open textbooks promise students. Our research over the years has shown that students routinely skip buying textbooks, and that openly-licensed, freely- available educational resources can (and have) saved students millions. Additional research has shown that open textbooks help students do better in class and graduate on time. To that end, we joined Sen. Durbin to introduce the Affordable College Textbook Act, which set the right tone to address skyrocketing textbook costs.

In the meantime, students and their allies on campuses have continued their advocacy on the local level. In places such as West Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, and Oregon, activists and student government leaders have worked with librarians, administrators, and faculty to create institutional grant programs that support instructors as they transition their courses to open textbooks. These local programs routinely save students more than a million dollars in their first few years.

Students took these successes to Capitol Hill to speak directly to legislators about how essential these programs are in their pursuit of a degree and to ask for an open textbooks appropriation. Since then, they’ve made hundreds of calls in to key committee chairs and party leadership, and more than 50 student government leaders signed onto a letter to Congress. Beyond that, more than 60 campus libraries sent a letter to congressional leaders calling for action, while students and administrations weighed in in person with legislative staff in meetings to support open textbooks.

April Nicklaus is an NJPIRG student leader who sat on the Rutgers University grant committee that, so far, has generated more than $2 million in savings in just two years. “Honestly this seems like a no-brainer. Students are being taken advantage of, and we know that free, open textbooks can save them a lot of money quickly. We need to fight for more affordable college on all fronts, but this is one area where we can take immediate action,” she said.

Dodson recently worked with the ConnPIRG chapter and his student government to build support for expanded use of open textbooks on their campus, working alongside the libraries to promote their program. “As a society, we should be making every effort possible to make college more affordable for all students, so that we can all enjoy the same opportunities. I’m only able to attend school because of scholarships and the Pell Grant. Even then, the cost of textbooks is a huge burden for me,” he said.

Julia Seremba, a student from the UMass-Amherst chapter, seconded that, saying, “We need to get open textbooks into the hands of more students so that they can focus on getting that A, rather than worrying about how they’re going to pay for all these expensive books.” At UMass, the open textbook program that MassPIRG helped start is approaching $2 million in student savings. “With such success stories, why wouldn’t we want to replicate that nationwide?” Seremba added.

We’re beyond thrilled that our legislators heard the call to put the open textbook program in the budget, even if it only lasts for the fiscal year. Now, let’s keep the momentum going. Congress, make this program permanent and pass the Affordable College Textbook Act!