Most conversations about dramatically reducing the amount colleges and students spend on textbooks center on e-books as cheaper, nimbler, and more era-appropriate alternatives to the dead-tree doorstops that students have been hauling around campuses since time immemorial.
But Rio Salado College, a mostly online community college in Arizona, has taken a different tack: using the same printed textbooks in all sections of each course. And so far, it reports substantial savings for students and few complaints from faculty.
In January 2008, Rio Salado cut a deal  with the publishing giant Pearson to be its sole supplier of textbooks to the community college’s roughly 60,000 students. The textbooks would be customized according to the specifications of the college — which, it says, sometimes included snippets from other publishers to supplement Pearson’s foundational content. At the time, the arrangement was heralded as an attempt to dramatically cut textbook costs without necessitating a switch to e-books or rented textbooks.
By only ordering one book per course, rather than allowing each professor to choose the book for her section, Rio Salado would be able to purchase volumes in bulk while saving Pearson the trouble of selling every professor on its product. The result? Publisher discounts that let the college retail the books to students for about 50 percent of what they used to have to charge in order to break even, according to officials.
Rio Salado standardizes course texts thusly in about 90 percent of courses (with the exception of some health care courses for which Pearson does not offer an authoritative text). Todd Simmons, vice president of administrative services at Rio Salado, estimates that in the two and a half years the college has used standardized custom textbooks, it has saved its students at least $6 million.
This without mandating a broad adoption of e-books, which have yet to catch on in most of higher education. Rio Salado officials say they are currently working on the similar application of custom e-books, which could increase savings.
One of the key elements of the success of Rio Salado’s textbook program has been the lack of pushback from its professors. “We had to have the buy-in of our faculty,” says Simmons. “We wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.” Patricia Case, chair of humanities and a former head of the faculty senate, said support for the program from full-time faculty was “unanimous.”
At first blush, this might seem surprising. Rio Salado’s faculty number over a thousand, and college professors in general have a reputation for being territorial about their courses. “At a regular university, you might have 10 sections of English 101, with 10 different professors teaching from 10 different texts,” says Simmons. In such environments, administrators who attempt to dictate what course materials instructors are to use might have a lot of angry academics on their hands.
What allowed Rio Salado to secure the necessary support was the fact that nearly all the college’s faculty members are adjuncts who have significantly less power than Rio Salado’s core of 26 full-time faculty members, and are in many cases not based on campus. The full-time faculty already design courses and dictate other aspects of their delivery to the adjuncts, says Case. The adjuncts can recommend additions to their courses' textbooks, but the decisions are made by the full-timers.
The fact that Rio Salado enrolls so many students while entitling so few faculty members to dictate course content appears to be a key reason why it is able to buy enough textbooks to get big discounts while avoiding the need to satisfy hundreds of professors. The advantage is much like how for-profit online institutions are able to save on textbooks  by telling their largely adjunct (and relatively powerless) instructors to assign e-books — and thus enjoy publisher discounts for buying bulk. In fact, Pearson has similar deals with for-profits such as Strayer University, DeVry University, and Bridgepoint Education.
The Rio Salado adjuncts are given the opportunity to put their personal imprint on each course by means other than textbook autonomy, says faculty senate president John Jensen; for example, posting announcements, notes, and even supplementary content such as video on the course’s learning-management page. Still, “Faculty who insist on being able to manipulate content, insert or remove content, or otherwise reshape their courses would probably not be comfortable with a distance learning setting with custom texts,” says Jensen. “…Mostly, our process is a function of how we are built.”
Don Kilburn, CEO of Pearson Learning Solutions, agrees that textbook standardization is not for every institution. Most institutions buy custom textbooks at the behest of individual professors who have chosen to take their power to choose even further by cobbling together a custom textbook for their classrooms only, he says.
However, Kilburn says he believes the popularity of large-scale online education programs that employ primarily adjuncts might prompt more institutions to go the same route as Rio Salado and others. Online programs — the fastest-growing sector of higher education — tend to be large and distributed; without some degree of centralization of academic leadership and standardization of course content, he says, the model becomes unwieldy.