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Universities Seek Ways To Reduce Textbook Costs

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Photo: Rob Wall (Flickr Commons)

Indiana schools are finding new solutions to help students deal with the skyrocketing cost of textbooks

On the first day of classes, Sam Morehead walks out of the Indiana State University campus Barnes & Noble with a significantly heavier backpack and considerably lighter wallet.

“I spent $500 on five books,” said the junior criminology major. “That’s about$ 100 a book, so definitely it cost me quite a chunk of money.”

As the beginning of the new school year begins at universities across the state, several colleges are starting new initiatives to reduce the cost of textbooks for students like Morehead.

Textbook prices have increased 82 percent in the last decade, according to a U.S. Public Interest Research Group report.

The report also shows Morehead’s costs are fairly normal. Students on average spend about $1,200 per year on textbooks and supplies, on top of tuition.

For an ISU undergraduate paying in-state tuition, that constitutes more than 7 percent of the total cost of attendance, and that price keeps rising.

A new pilot program at ISU is trying to mitigate those rising costs.

Jerre Cline, a co-chair of the project, called “Saving Students Money on Textbooks,” said even though book fees make up a large part of college costs, students rarely think of them when making a budget.

“You look at what the cost of tuition is, you look at what the cost of room and board is, and you say ‘OK, I know how much it costs,’” Cline said. “Then you get to school and the next thing you know, you’re spending $1,000, $1,300 on textbooks. If we can reduce that cost, that is likely to result in students being better able to pursue their education.”

The ISU initiative encourages university faculty—in the form of a $3,000 stipend—to ditch the pricey textbooks and start teaching using free online content instead.

These online content sources, which include websites and e-books, are known collectively as “open education resources,” or “OER”s.

“When students don’t have to pay for their textbooks, they’re saving money, thus making education more affordable,” Cline said.

Close to 800 students have participated in the initiative’s pilot program in the past year, and they saved a total of $90,000.

“Many of the professors have had a very positive experience,” said Heather Rayl, an emerging technology librarian at ISU and co-chair of the initiative. “They say it’s liberating to be able to find materials that specifically fit their learning objectives for the semester. They find the students are more engaged. They can weed out the material that is not relevant.”

But professors still are experiencing some problems with transitioning to open sources.

Materials aren’t updated with the same regularity as traditional textbooks, and there are simply not as many free sources available for teachers.

Additionally, it’s a lot of work for faculty to completely rework their courses around new content.

“Faculty needed support that they didn’t have initially when we said, ‘Here’s the money, and you can change your course to open educational resources type scenario,’ ” he said.

Rayl said the school is working to resolve that issue with a class that teaches professors how to best tailor their courses around e-materials.

“This course that we’ve developed provides them with structure and a framework, and at the end of the course, when they’ve completed it they should have almost a fully functional OER course ready to go.”
ISU isn’t the only Indiana school concerned about the rising cost of class materials. For example, at Indiana University, renting books for a semester instead of buying them is an increasingly popular option.

Elsewhere in the state, Purdue University is also looking at using more open materials.

The school recently also announced a partnership with Amazon that awards students a 30 percent discount on textbooks.

Frank Dooley, Purdue’s associate provost for undergraduate affairs, said that a $1,200 textbook fee is equal to 12 percent of an in-state Purdue undergraduate’s tuition.

That, along with books’ rapidly rising costs, prompted the university to brainstorm strategies for helping make college materials more affordable.

“We’ve been very concerned about the cost of higher education,” he said. “The inflation rate of textbooks,  it’s three times the rate of inflation. We thought we need to take be taking look at that.”

Dooley says professors themselves even came forward, concerned about textbooks’ high price tags.

Purdue is also opening two on-campus distribution centers with Amazon starting next year.

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