Milked: How You can Help Slow the Soaring Cost of College Textbooks

Textbook prices are soaring.

Since the late 1970’s, the cost of college textbooks has increased by more than 1,000%. If the cost of milk had increased by this same rate, today we’d be paying more than $17 a gallon.

Through the 1980’s the price on textbooks increased 3 times the rate of inflation, and since the 1990’s it’s surged 4 times inflation. As a result, the average undergraduate in America spends nearly $1,200 a year on textbooks and supplies alone – a number that exceeds the total cost of annual tuition at some universities. If the price of milk had done the same over this time period, an average family in America would be spending more than $200,000 a year on dairy products alone.

Needless to say, today’s college students are being milked for every penny they have.

Brittany Jones, a current senior at CI, recently shared a story about the hardships of rising textbook prices: “There are more homeless students on this campus than most faculty realize. Halfway through my first semester at CI, I learned that one of the students I’d often gone to for feedback in a class was in fact homeless. I was shocked to learn of his situation because it was impossible to tell he was living that way. He told me he slept on friends’ couches when he could and sometimes had to sleep in his car… Professors need to keep in mind the students who may fall into this category when assigning required textbooks… These students do not have a home to sleep in, and often worry about where their next meal will come from. When they are required to spend hundreds of dollars on books, they are essentially spending the money they need to survive.”

Another CI student, Jessica Redding, discussed having to decide between buying textbooks for her class or gasoline for her car. “Textbooks have been a personal hardship on me sense I first began at CI… Every time I have to buy a book for class I think about how much gas that book could equate to; it’s very stressful… Sometimes it comes down to the choice between having the gas to get to class, or having the book for class.”

Stories like these are far too common. Other students I spoke with described taking on additional jobs to cover the cost of their textbooks, while others shared the frustration of buying hundreds of dollars in textbooks, only to learn their instructor rarely – if ever – used it during class. Kevin Eberle went as far as to estimate “60% of the textbooks I’ve bought were not needed… The other 40% of the time, the professor tells us on the first day we should have read the chapter already, but due to my experience with the other 60%, I had not bought my textbook yet. This inconsistency in professors is frustrating and causes us to either lose out financially or academically.”

Unsurprisingly, the high cost of textbooks has shown to cause increased levels of stress for students during school, more student debt once they’ve finish, or worse: Their decision to never attend college in the first place. And each of these realities is especially evident among first generation students, historically underrepresented groups, and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds – three categories that speak to the very heart of CI.

Fortunately, it’s not all bad news.

Instead of crying over spilled milk, I’m proud to say that CI’s Teaching and Learning Innovations (T&LI) group has taken remarkable strides to save students money on textbooks through an initiative called openCI. In response to Assembly Bill 798 and as part of the CSU’s Affordable Learning Solutions Initiative (AL$), openCI is an effort on campus to help faculty redesign their courses using Open Education Resources (OERs) and other no/low-cost course materials: e-textbooks, library materials, online courseware, TED Talks, government reports, Kahn Academy resources, open access journals, or even original content like what Crissy Spencer (Georgia Tech) and her colleagues created for Biology 1510, to name but a few.

Since launching in Fall 2016, openCI has (1) built an original website to provide faculty with resources and information; (2) delivered three campus workshops to inform and support faculty on OER, AL$, fair use law, etc.; (3) hosted monthly working sessions in the T&LI’s FIT Studio; (4) wrote an article on textbook affordability for the Ventura County Star; (5) contributed to a forthcoming article in the CI View; (6) published a previous blog post here on OERs and open pedagogy; (7) curated discipline-specific lists of e-books and other online materials; (8) laid the groundwork for designating “low cost majors” across campus; (9) outlined a campus-wide research study on the impact of OER design and implementation; (10) accepted to present a competitively selected panel at the 2017 annual convention of OLC Innovate in New Orleans, LA; (11) worked alongside CI’s Student Government to write a campus resolution on OER adoption; and the list goes on.

The response to each of these efforts has been overwhelmingly positive – a reality that evidences the innovative spirit of CI’s faculty and administration, as well as their genuine concern for our students’ wellbeing.

To date, nearly 40 instructors across campus have become “openCI Ambassadors” by committing to redesign their courses with OERs or other no/low materials. From Fall 2016 through Fall 2017, these openCI Ambassadors will redesign 100 course sections, spanning 18 programs on campus, and benefiting over 3,000 undergraduate students. Even more importantly, openCI Ambassadors have already saved students nearly $200,000 over the last two semesters alone ($70,000 during Fall 2016 and an additional $120,000 during Spring 2017). As if all that weren’t enough, they’re expected to have saved CI students well over $400,000 by this time next year.

Despite the soaring cost of college textbooks, I can’t help but to be encouraged by initiatives like openCI. I’m encouraged by the positive response this initiative has received from faculty and administrators. And I’m encouraged by the tangible savings it’s already generated for our current student body.

In fact, if you’re interested in learning more about openCI, how to become an openCI Ambassador, or how to redesign your own course using OERs and other no/low-cost materials, please don’t hesitate to contact Jaime Hannans (Jaime.hannans@csuci.edu) or myself (jacob.jenkins@csuci.edu). Thanks in part to openCI and the work of our T&LI group, CI is currently emerging as a campus leader in the area of textbook affordability. And we’d love for you to play a part in all of this by helping us slow the soaring cost of college textbooks.

Until then, you’ll have to excuse me while I go put a gallon of milk on layaway.

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