By Clare O'Reilly
Students should never have to decide whether or not they can afford to take a class, especially at a school like U.Va. which they already pay thousands of dollars in tuition to each semester. And yet, across the country, high textbook prices continually act as a barrier to students’ success. A survey conducted by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that over 63 percent of college students have skipped buying at least one textbook because they couldn’t afford it. Decisions like these endanger students’ success in the classroom, and they disproportionately affect those who are already struggling with other serious concerns like food insecurity.
The ongoing global pandemic has only exacerbated these issues, generating an increased reliance on online textbooks that require access codes and creating even more cost barriers for students at a time when many are facing increasingly precarious financial situations. The textbook market is monopolized by a handful of publishers that have free reign to set prices as they see fit. This lack of competition is ultimately detrimental to students, not to mention limiting to professors who are mindful of the added strain they may be causing their students by assigning a textbook. The University needs to take action now. To that end, Student Council has passed a resolution in support of open educational resources, and while OERs are by no means the ultimate solution to education affordability, they are a powerful first step.
Open educational resources are openly licensed, online materials created to enable access to education for all. As Judith Thomas, a longtime U.Va. librarian partnering with Public Interest Research Group Campus Action at U.V.a. on the OER initiative, said, “open educational materials, which are free to use and adapt, reduce barriers to learning by making college more affordable and thus equitable. Students can access free materials; faculty can adapt OER to the needs of their particular classes to create a more inclusive and active classroom environment.”
Simply put, OERs are free textbooks, and they are desperately needed. The College Board found that, on average, students spend $1,200 a year on books and other school supplies — yet another zero added onto the already bloated cost of education. These additional costs place a serious financial strain on students, but OERs render them completely unnecessary. With OERs, the University has an opportunity to become a leader in a shift towards a culture of education that values all students — not just those with hundreds of spare dollars lying around — and they should seize it immediately. Education is meant to be the great equalizer, but when the information comes from books that run for up to $300 each, education itself becomes a matter of inequality.
This is not some wild, unattainable ask. With a well-structured incentives program that provides proper support, the University could motivate its faculty to write open textbooks and course materials, something that a growing number have already done. Many of these materials are available at the library’s OER website.Besides that, there are already hundreds of open textbooks available online that are ready for classroom use. The beauty of OERs is that once they’re written, anyone can use them, so implementing OERs at the University doesn’t have to wait until professors have written their own textbooks. They can simply use the resources that are already available to them. Many professors already post their readings for free on Collab because they recognize that asking students to pay for additional materials for five different classes is absurd, and OER implementation can help institutionalize this attitude to the benefit of all students.
I hope that Student Council’s resolution in support of OERs — SR 21-25 — will help University administration realize that Open Educational Resources offer them an opportunity to help students, especially at a time when so many of us are struggling. This resolution is not a symbolic gesture but a starting point. Broad OER implementation is not some lofty, eventual goal. Dedicated librarians have been working on this initiative since 2019 because they recognize the glaring need for it, but they cannot continue to do so without support from both students and administrators.
The University should move immediately to build a long-term infrastructure that will allow for a complete transition to open textbooks. This should include an incentives program to allow professors to comfortably write their own textbooks, complete with both a support system and a stipend. This transition will not be instantaneous, but it will be worth it. The University has the tools, drive and resources to become a leader in Virginia and prove that OERs are a viable path for universities to take, and I very much hope that they capitalize on this opportunity as soon as possible.
Clare O’Reilly is a third-year student in the College and a member of PIRG Campus Action at U.Va.