Affordable Textbook Act Would Help Limit Textbook Costs for Students

Posted By Eliana Osborn on November 12, 2015 at 3:33 pm
Affordable Textbook Act Would Help Limit Textbook Costs for Students

The Affordable Textbook Act has come up in Congress before, but the act has never quite made it into law.  Initially sponsored by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) in 2013, the ATA would help colleges make textbooks available for free or at a lower cost to students.

Between 2002 and 2012, the cost of textbooks increased more than 80%, according to the Government Accountability Office.  That means a yearly average over $1,200 per student.  And professors don’t choose course materials with an eye on price—they often don’t even know how much books will cost unless a student clues them in.

The ATA was recently reintroduced by Senator Durbin, as well as Senator Al Franken (D-MN), and Senator Angus King (I-ME).  The bill would provide grants to institutions “to expand the use of open textbooks on college campuses, providing affordable alternatives to traditional textbooks and keeping prices lower.”  Schools would be able to use the money on pilot programs to try out open textbooks, especially in priority areas where books are extremely expensive.  Funding from the bill would also help create open-access textbooks, as well as report on how successful such programs are.

Another aspect of the ATA has to do with textbook publishers.  Publishers have a tremendous amount of control over pricing and products; they can come out with a new edition each year with minimal changes, making used book purchases difficult.  Under the ATA, publishers would not be able to bundle products.  They would have to sell books and web codes individually, not just together.  This would provide students and professors with greater customization opportunities.

Open textbooks have many advantages for everyone involved.  As e-books, they work in multiple formats rather than requiring specific devices.  2010 research by Student PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups) found that open textbooks saved students between 80 and 100% of the costs for courses.  For professors, an open textbook can contain whatever information they want and skip sections not relevant to their specific classes.

The ultimate goal of the ATA is to get more colleges to create open textbooks using grant funding.  Then, these textbooks will be available to others for free, providing substantial value moving forward.  Schools that have experienced success using open textbooks will be able to share their resources and strategies with other institutions, moving the whole nation toward more sensible costs.

That process is already underway, without the help of ATA.  But, as noted by the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, “The current rate of adoption is too slow when so many students are struggling with textbook costs. Federal intervention is necessary to help open textbooks gain a foothold faster, which would provide much-needed financial relief and raise the bar for digital materials to ensure students receive the full benefits of today’s technology.”

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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