Rapper Kanye West went to the social media website Twitter in February to share his views on the cost of textbooks.
“Education puts Americans into debt before they even get a chance to get started,” he wrote. “We have to lower the price of textbooks.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, gathers information on labor and the economy in the U.S. BLS information shows that from January 1977 to June 2015, the cost of university textbooks increased by 1,024 percent.
This increase is at three times the rate of normal inflation.
Within a few hours of West writing his comments on Twitter, Tidewater Community College in Hampton Roads, Virginia responded.
“We got you,” the school wrote on its Twitter account. “The nation’s first textbook-free degree.”
Tidewater began offering what it calls a “Z-degree” in 2013. Z-degree stands for “zero-textbooks.” The two-year degree program provides students with an associate’s degree in business administration.
Students in the Z-degree program do not have to pay for any of the required course materials. All of the required materials come from open educational resources, or OER. OER are free educational materials anyone can use for any purpose.
Creators of OER do not ask for a copyright, or exclusive use of the content.
Tidewater professor Linda Williams teaches several courses for the Z-degree program. She says that universities should be working to make education more available to everyone.
“Knowledge and learning shouldn’t be locked behind a pay wall. Education is sharing. We learn from each other and everybody should have that opportunity, not just those who can purchase a textbook.”
The Student Public Interest Research Groups, called Student PIRGs, are a group of non-profit organizations that work with college students. Student PIRGs help students study and try to solve issues in higher education.
Student PIRGs surveyed more than 5,000 college students about the cost of textbooks for a report called “Covering the Cost.” The report found that almost 30 percent of students surveyed spent financial aid on textbooks.
The report also argued one of the main reasons for high prices is because five companies own 80 percent of the textbook publishing industry. With little competition, the companies can set the price at whatever they want.
Marisa Bluestone is the Director of Communications for the American Association of Publishers, or AAP. She notes that the Student PIRGs report says its own research is “unscientific.” She also argues that the information from Student PIRGs and the BLS is unclear.
“When they’re measuring the cost of textbooks, they’re looking at the traditional books. They’re not including in their calculations the digital materials and the other options that students are using...”
The College Board is a non-profit organization concerned with higher education. They estimated that the budget for books and supplies at a four-year public university was $1,298 per year.
Bluestone says this information does not show how much money students are actually spending. Digital copies, rentals and used books are much cheaper. Cheaper options are the reason in 2015 the National Association of College Stores reported a six-year decrease in average annual spending, Bluestone says.
David Anderson is the Executive Director for the AAP. He says that for-profit publishers work hard to reduce cost.
“I don’t know of any other participant in higher education that can claim that they’re cutting their costs in half.”
University of Maryland University College, or UMUC, is another school that uses OER to help its 84,000 students reduce costs. All of the school’s undergraduate courses became textbook-free in fall 2015.
Kara Van Dam is the vice provost at UMUC. She argues that the publishing industry does not do enough to help students.
“Typically, the electronic versions are barely any cheaper than the hard copy versions. Where they are lower cost, they may be out of date editions. I respectfully disagree with the publishing industry’s take on this. But I also recognize this is their entire business model. So it would be very threatening to have textbooks go out of style.”
Both Williams and Van Dam suggest the quality of OER has greatly increased in recent years. They say that the faculty of their schools are experts in their subjects. As experts, the faculty can decide which materials meet the needs of their students and courses.
Williams also says that the information in OER is more current. Faculty can update the materials when necessary.
OpenStax College is a non-profit organization that has been publishing OER since 2012 through Rice University.
David Harris is the Editor-in-Chief of OpenStax College. Harris says that OpenStax works with other non-profit organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create the best free content possible.
“What we do is we peer review the materials by many, many reviewers. We work with professional development editors who make sure that the material is level appropriate.”
Van Dam says there is nothing that makes regular textbooks better than OER.
“There’s nothing magical about a textbook. A textbook was put together by a publisher. The publisher hired a faculty member or multiple faculty members to write that textbook and they sell it.”
Van Dam and Williams agree students should not have to choose between costly textbooks and food.
Williams also says using OER shows that universities are more than a place people go for information.
“Is a university simply a collection of textbooks? I don’t believe that at all. I believe that the university system provides much more than just content.”
Harris says 20 percent of universities in the U.S. use at least one OpenStax free textbook. But Harris, Williams and Van Dam all agree that the world of for-profit textbook publishing is not going away.
For one thing, changing a course completely to OER materials requires a lot of work, Williams says.
Anderson says that publishing is changing. Non-profit and for-profit publishers should work together to create the best teaching materials.
“Publishers make a profit. They make a profit either way. Many of the members of AAP collaborate with open source producers to produce new learning materials that address specific problems for specific schools. With respect to the ‘zero degree’ program, this is a new thing. We’ll see how it works.”
I’m Pete Musto.
Pete Musto reported and wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.
Now it’s your turn. What are your thoughts on open educational resources? How else can colleges reduce cost to students? Let us know in the comments section or on our Facebook page.
Words in This Story
rapper – n. a person who performs rap music or speaks the words of a rap song
textbook(s) – n. a book about a particular subject that is used in the study of that subject especially in a school
associate’s degree – n. a degree that is given to a student who has completed two years of study at a junior college, college, or university in the U.S.
course – n. a series of classes about a particular subject in a school
copyright – n. the legal right to be the only one to reproduce, publish, and sell a piece of work for a certain period of time
opportunity – n. an amount of time or a situation in which something can be done
non-profit – adj. not existing or done for the purpose of making a profit
financial aid – n. money that is given or lent to students in order to help pay for their education
calculation(s) – n. a process or result of counting something
digital – adj. using or characterized by computer technology
cheap(er) – adj. not costing a lot of money
undergraduate – adj. related to a degree that is given to a student by a college or university usually after four years of study
out of date – adj. no longer useful or acceptable
out of style – adj. not popular or fashionable
faculty – n. the group of teachers in a school or college
content – n. the ideas, facts, or images that are in a book, article, speech, or movie
peer review – v. a process by which a scholarly work (such as a paper or a research proposal) is checked by a group of experts in the same field to make sure it meets the necessary standards before it is published or accepted
editor(s) – n. a person whose job is to edit something
appropriate – adj. right or suited for some purpose or situation
magical – adj. having special power, influence, or skill
collaborate – v. to work with another person or group in order to achieve or do something
specific – adj. clearly and exactly presented or stated