Textbook Prices are off the charts. Are Open Educational Resources the Answer?


A 2013 study by the Government Accountability Office revealed that the price of college textbooks rose 82 percent between 2002 and 2013, more than three times the rate of inflation. Data from the College Board put those figures into perspective: the average college student spends about $1,200 per year on books and supplies. This is a nontrivial expense, especially for low and middle-income students.

The GAO study goes on to say that one attempt to ameliorate the problem has already failed. Entitled, “College Textbooks: Students Have Greater Access to Textbook Information,” shows that giving students and faculty more information about the prices and formats of books has not helped to drive down costs.

“Publishers included in GAO’s study have disclosed textbook information required by the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA), such as pricing and format options, and made components of bundled materials available individually, but stakeholders GAO interviewed said these practices have had little effect on faculty decisions.”

This isn’t surprising. Faculty members have little incentive (other than sympathy for their students) to choose less expensive classroom materials. Textbook companies regularly provide professors free access to books, online materials, and other course resources as part of their marketing. The costs fall on students, not professors. Thus, faculty members prioritize things other than price—such as ease of use, comprehensiveness of materials, and online access—when choosing which textbook to use.

Now, at least one state is trying a new tactic. A new Virginia bill will require all public colleges and universities to create guidelines for the adoption of open educational resources. Virginia House Bill 454 was sponsored by delegate Eileen Filler-Corn (D-41) and voted unanimously into law in April 2018.

Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust praised the bill in a press release following its adoption:

“The high cost of college textbooks is often an overlooked factor of college affordability and student loan debt. We are proud to have supported Delegate Filler-Corn in her successful effort to help make college more affordable for students and their families. As our public colleges and universities begin crafting OER guidelines, we are hopeful that implementation will soon follow. Action must be taken to reduce the financial strain placed upon students and their families because of skyrocketing costs within higher education. There is still much to be done to improve affordability, but relieving students of having to pay hundreds of dollars for textbooks is a good start.”

Other state legislators will surely watch Virginia’s experiment closely.

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