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MINK: Open books are the solution to the textbook racket

Simple policy changes could collectively save students millions

This September the state of Rhode Island made an important step toward decreasing the financial weight of a college education when it announced the Rhode Island Open Textbook Initiative, a program that encourages professors and students to make use of open textbooks. These texts are written by faculty members from across the country and made freely available through online platforms. For the seven Rhode Island colleges that signed up, the program is expected to save students $5 million or more in the next five years.

This move comes at an opportune time for public college students who spend a yearly average of almost $1,300 for textbooks and supplies. Between 1978 and 2014, college textbook prices have risen 945 percent, faster than both inflation and the cost of medical care. The reason publishers can charge such large amounts is due to the nature of the textbook market, where the actual consumers — the students — have no choice in the text they are assigned by a professor. This creates a price-insensitive market for the publisher and a tough choice for the student, who may have to choose between financial stability and their grades.

The advent of the web and sites like Amazon that provide an outlet for resale has not forced publishers to drop prices. Instead, they’ve devised new ways to limit the use of their materials. One technique is to regularly introduce new editions that contain little additional information, but force students to buy the newer, more expensive copy rather than a used one. A less obvious way to prevent resale is to bundle these textbooks with extras like CDs and workbooks, an industry tactic that was criticized by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in a 2005 report.

One method that has emerged over the past decade is to issue custom textbooks. For example, the University of Alabama requires freshman composition students to buy a custom version of “A Writer’s Reference” for around $60. The only addition made to the original, available used for $30, is a small section describing the school’s writing program, which is also available free online. Not only that, but resale of the book is forbidden, and their bookstore does not buy back used copies. These stringent rules may be because the school’s English Department is paid a $3 royalty for each copy sold. Due perhaps to its revenue-producing benefits, this segment of the textbook business is it’s fastest growing market, making 12 percent of sales for 2006.

The textbook industries resistance to price change shows that if nothing else, the events in Rhode Island should be observed closely to see if they are effective. A success story there would be a strong signal to the state of Virginia and the University that open textbooks provide a viable option to replace our current ones, especially since textbook prices are a problem here as well. The Cavalier Daily found most courses require an average of over $100 in textbooks, with the Economics Department topping the list at an average of $181 per class.

While it’s entirely possible for professors to use these resources now, it’s unlikely they will be widely adopted on their own. The truth is that without encouragement, professors lack much incentive to browse online databases for quality open textbooks they can adopt. After all, they do not have to buy the textbook, and they may be reluctant to switch to a new textbook if they’ve already sunk time and energy into producing a lesson plan based around one particular book.

There are many ways to encourage this move to open textbooks, such as by issuing micro-grants to faculty to transition their courses, working with the Open Textbook Network and training librarians to help faculty find open textbooks. In fact, Oklahoma University recently started offering grant awards of several thousand dollars to professors who make the switch, and it provides them with assistance from librarians in the process of finding and utilizing these resources. Though there were only 15 grant recipients last year, the program already delivered projected student savings of $270,000. With results like that, the University and its professors have a responsibility to explore the possibilities an open textbook system would provide.

Alex Mink is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at