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Libby Nelson has a thought-provoking piece in Vox about why textbook prices keep climbing so quickly. It’s worth a read, not least for the point that, as with tuition, prices do not necessarily equal spending.  As prices have climbed progressively higher, students have become more vigilant about finding alternatives, whether through rentals, used purchases online, or other, more ethically ambiguous means. 

Unfortunately, many of the alternatives to purchasing -- other than just going without -- are more available to students who have more social or economic capital from the outset. The thicker and more educated your network, the easier it will be to find friends who will lend copies. Some campuses have relatively robust rental programs, but many don’t. (From an institutional perspective, it would be easier to control book costs if departments would select standard texts across every section of a given course. But they prefer not to. As long as each professor can choose her own instructional materials -- a stipulation in our collective bargaining agreement -- certain potential economies of scale are off the table.)  And some of the cost-saving mechanisms that can work tolerably well for high-enrollment introductory courses aren’t nearly as effective for lower-enrolled, more specialized classes. 

The blindingly obvious answer, I think, is an industry-wide drive to make high-caliber Open Educational Resources available, starting with the developmental and freshman levels and working our way up. Platform-independent OER offer the promise of sustained affordability, and of better accessibility for students with disabilities than many commercial publishers offer now. 

A serious push towards OER would require a significant chunk of sustained external capital. Even if the resources are free to students, they’re still costly to produce and maintain.  Publishers have no interest, since OER violate their business model.  But much of the infrastructure of publishing would still have to exist. As many of us discover painfully in graduate school, manuscripts don’t edit themselves.  In highly technical subjects, the level of formatting and proofreading involved is not to be sneezed at. 

A similar dynamic is at work with ERP systems.  ERP systems are those back-office IT systems that manage class schedules, student registrations, academic records, and the like. A few major commercial providers dominate the market, and from my non-technical perspective, they all basically suck. But no single college (outside of maybe Harvard, which probably doesn’t feel the need) has the resources to build its own.  So we wrestle with vendors who keep buying each other.

I had great hopes for Kuali, the open-source embryonic ERP, which was why the story that it’s becoming a for-profit vendor itself was so disappointing. Rather than developing as the badly needed alternative that it could, it’s likely now to become another variation on Banner. 

In both cases, the missing element is a deep-pocketed consortium dedicated to solving a problem on the ground. For-profit publishers won’t just give it away; they’d go out of business.  And for-profit ERP providers have an interest in a cycle similar to textbooks: lots of updates, high maintenance, and ever-higher cost. 

Non-profit consortia are notoriously hard to organize. They tend to fall prey to the “free rider” problem, in which each individual (or college) makes the calculation that its own contribution is far less crucial to the success of the collective than to its own budget, so it’s individually rational to let others carry the weight. When enough people do that, the collaboration collapses.

If only there were some sort of large piles of money sitting around, with some sort of social purpose, but without a mandate to make a profit.


If only such things existed, they could form the foundation of broadly beneficial investments. That’s a good word: we could call them “foundations.” Foundations with deep-pocketed, tech-savvy benefactors could choose to make the initially unglamorous investments that would save millions of students significant money for decades to come.  By virtue of their structure, they could get around the free-rider problem. 

Last week Paul LeBlanc proposed a national college degree that would form the baseline against which colleges would have to show value. I’m thinking this is the least controversial, lowest-hanging fruit in that proposal. It’s a prerequisite to the NCD, but it could also stand without it.  Cutting the costs of back-office operations and textbooks may not stir the blood, but it could make real and sustained differences both for existing institutions and for emergent or potential ones.

Or, we could just keep publishing rankings and talking about pipelines.

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