BLOG | Reducing the Cost of Higher Education through Affordable Textbooks

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By David E. Hubler, Contributor, Online Learning Tips, and Andrea Dunn, Associate Vice President of Electronic Course Materials, APUS

There once was a bookstore owner whose media pitch was short and simple. “Books cost too much,” he said, explaining why he founded his discount bookstore chain. However, he wasn’t thinking of the ever-increasing cost of college textbooks.

Perhaps stirred to action in part by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) call for free college tuition for all, American colleges and universities today are looking for ways to reduce the cost of higher education tuition, room and board, and of course textbooks.

Institutions of higher learning are examining steps they can take, so students won’t have to make the hard choice between paying all their fees and eating. Above all, they hope to reduce the overwhelming average student debt of $39,400 that can follow college graduates for decades.

New York University recently made national news when it announced that its School of Medicine would provide full scholarships to all current and future students in its doctor of medicine program. The free tuition includes the current incoming class and all students in their second or third year as well. However, “most medical students will still foot the bill for about $29,000 each year in room, board and other living expenses,” NPR noted.

Bill Conerly, writing in Forbes in 2016, reported that 38 community colleges were developing curricula to use Open Educational Resources (OER).

As Conerly explained, “Think of public-domain textbooks, but textbook is too narrow a term. Many courses involve interactive learning modules as well as tools for professors. It’s no surprise that this move came from community colleges, which are more sensitive to student costs than traditional four-year colleges are.”

Totally Free Online Textbooks Are Available for Common Undergraduate Courses

Totally free online textbooks are available for many common undergraduate courses, such as economics and biology. Courses that require non-textbook readings can be inexpensive if the material is out of copyright. For example, Plato’s Republic is available online for free, Conerly said.

APUS’ book grant program provides textbooks and/or e-books at no charge to doctoral students and students earning undergraduate academic credit. OER brings together teaching, learning and resource materials in any medium that has been released under an open license.

APUS Converted 222 Courses to Open Educational Resource Status in 2017

Open Educational Resources include textbooks, curricula, syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, tests, projects, audio, video and animation products. In 2017, APUS converted 222 courses to OER.

“With publishers having more flexible options these days, it’s getting better for students,” says Andrea Dunn, Associate Vice President of Electronic Course Materials at APUS. These options help lower the cost of purchasing class materials. Students can access free materials – textbooks, articles in journals, and articles written by professors specifically with OER in mind – through the university’s online library and open Web.

“We’re not just adopting a resource because it’s free. We’re using it because it’s of equal or better quality than a mainstream textbook publisher such as a Pearson or a McGraw-Hill can provide,” Dunn explains.

Last year, APUS made the OER initiative a priority for all academics. That extends now to graduate students and instructors. “There are five APUS programs that don’t have any associated textbook costs with them at the graduate level. The term for that is the ‘Z-degree’ for zero-cost degree,” Dunn explained.

Currently there are five Z-degree programs in APUS master’s programs:

  • Management
  • Political Science
  • Environmental Management
  • International Relations
  • Public Policy

“We’re reducing the cost to the student while maintaining the quality of the learning materials,” Dunn said.

One advantage of using timely online articles and government documents rather than textbooks for courses in International Affairs, for example, is that current events change too rapidly for textbooks to stay current.

APUS is partnering with Intellus Learning, which has integrated some of the university’s library collection so faculty and students can search for and access OER materials as well as licensed library content. The company has an index of digital assets available from OER repositories — video, ebooks, text, audio, interactive, assignments — that support teaching and learning.

The Intellus website explains that its “simple interface improves the usability of digital content by connecting faculty and students with resources aligned to specific learning objectives. All digital content is then matched with faculty and student learning objectives.”

“It’s kind of a soup-to-nuts solution that takes the heavy lifting away from those who are not familiar with the Open Educational programs in repositories,” Dunn explained.

College Libraries Are among the Leaders in OER and Lowering Higher Education Costs

College libraries are among the campus leaders driving the OER movement at APUS and elsewhere. For example, in Ohio, a library consortium called OhioLink is part of a statewide effort to curate and enhance a set of OER course materials for 21 course subjects. The University of Texas at Arlington has a full-time OER librarian. The University of Minnesota has an Open Textbook Library from which textbooks can be downloaded for free or printed at low cost.

Cooperation among University Libraries and Private Learning Companies Are Creating a New Era in Information Services and Academic Research

Cooperation among university libraries with private learning companies like Intellus is creating a new era in information services and academic research that are significantly reducing the cost of higher education for all students.

APUS librarians and course materials staff work closely with faculty to find suitable resources for their classrooms. The collaborative, cross-departmental approach supporting the OER initiative involves faculty, program directors, deans, course material support staff, project managers, compliance staff, information technology specialists, and instructional designers.

The APUS faculty has created open textbooks that are still in use in undergraduate courses and are free for other institutions to adopt as well. If suitable resources cannot be found in the OER realm or within the library, there could be more of in-house content creation.

APUS aims to use Open Educational Resources and library materials in all courses where it makes sense to replace current textbooks. While OER may not fully support some courses, the great majority will utilize these kinds of resources to lower costs for the University and students alike.