Community Colleges Embrace Internet Resources To Fight High Textbook Costs

Posted By Donna Fuscaldo on July 7, 2016 at 1:56 pm
Community Colleges Embrace Internet Resources To Fight High Textbook Costs

College textbooks aren’t going away any time soon, but they are finding new competition from the open education resources community or providers of free course work. With colleges, government, nonprofits and parents trying to find ways to bring down the cost of college, Achieving The Dream, a nonprofit national college reform network, is betting OERs can play a big role in not only reducing expenses associated but increasing graduation rates.

That’s particularly important for community college administrators since the graduation rate among associate’s degree holders is at 39% after six years, according to the National Clearinghouse.

Earlier this month Achieving The Dream announced an initiative, involving 38 community colleges in 13 states, in which schools received grants to create degree programs using high quality open educational resources. The idea: When students don’t have to pay for the course material, it eliminates a big roadblock to completion.

In announcing the initiative, Achieving The Dream pointed to data from research firm Public Agenda that shows students who don’t complete college are 50 percent more likely to cite high textbook costs as a huge factor compared with those who graduated. What’s more, Achieving The Dream pegs the annual costs of textbooks at $1,300 for full-time community college students—about a third of the cost of an associate’s degree.

“With a typical community college student, the cost is more of a barrier than it would be at a university,” says Joel Welch, vice president of instructional services and chief academic officer at Forsyth Technical Community College in North Carolina, which received grant money from Achieving The Dream for an OER degree. Students paying $10,000 for tuition and another $10,000 or so on room and board won’t feel the pain of another $2,000 for text books as much as a community college student spending $1,500 to $2,500 on tuition, Welch says.

Community colleges turn to the internet for course material

Community colleges draw upon a slew of online sources to access free course work and learning materials. There are repositories online as well as internet-based research projects that make material readily available for free. Some schools team with content providers to create the coursework, while others tap internal services that find content for their professors. Achieving The Dream’s OER Degree Initiative is creating a library of digital open courses for institutions and the public to encourage wider adoption of OER.

Lowering the financial burden of high textbook costs for students is a main goal of the OER initiative, but early trials have demonstrated there are more benefits. Take the SUNY Community College System, which received $400,000 in grants from Achieving The Dream to implement OER degree programs at five schools during the next three years. It did grassroots work in the area before receiving the grant. Mark McBride, ‎director of library services at Monroe Community College, one of the schools receiving implementing the program, says educators found retention increased and grades improved when OERs were used. “What’s taking place with OERs is faculty are able to personalize the learning experience inside the course and that’s leading to not only the faculty feeling more engaged but also the students,” McBride says.

Expanding OERs beyond community colleges

Students may come out the winner when schools embrace OERs, but textbook publishers may not be so happy to see the movement gain steam. The industry already faces competition from online retailers and digital downloads, and many are apt to argue their books are higher quality than the free resources online. “Publishers are scared to death,” McBride says. “I have had publishers scream and yell I’m destroying the education process. Some publishers are a little bit more open to this idea, but most are jacking up prices and laying a lot of people off.”

The National Association of College Stores (NACS) falls squarely in the “getting it” camp, announcing in March that its wholesale textbook distributor NASCSCORP is teaming up with OpenStax, a Rice University-based publisher, to provide university and college instructors with the ability to create customized, OER textbooks and offer low-cost printed copies to students through campus bookstores. “NACS believes college stores are well-positioned to play an active role in helping with the acquisition of OER on behalf of faculty who choose to use them in the classroom, as well as the multiple-format distribution of such materials to students,” says Jennifer Libertowski, a spokeswoman for the association.  “Quality open educational resources have the potential to expand the knowledge market and contribute to increased affordability of course materials for higher education.”

Community college students take a big hit from high textbook costs, so it’s not surprising that OERs would be targeted at them. But the movement isn’t stopping on the two-year level. A handful of four-year institutions are considering or offering OERs. McBride points to Suny Buffalo and The College at Brockport as examples of four-year institutions that employ OERs and sees their use expanding into four-year schools, doctoral programs, granting institutions and even in K-12. “You can save money, but you are doing a lot more. You are personalizing the learning experience for students,” he says. “They do better, feel more connected to the class and feel more connected to the teacher. It’s a real opportunity for education to take full advantage of the Internet.”

Donna Fuscaldo
Donna Fuscaldo is a freelance journalist hailing out of Long Island, New York. She has also written for,,,, Business Insider, Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal.

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