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California governor Gavin Newsom wants to disrupt the publishing industry with open educational resources.

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California governor Gavin Newsom made headlines last year when he committed $115 million to expand the state’s investment in a zero textbook cost program that largely relies on open educational resources, a move Newsom said would “deal with the racket … that is the textbook industry.”

More than six months after Newsom signed legislation allocating the funds, little has been publicly announced about how the state’s community college system intends to roll out the expanded program, leaving advocates, philanthropists and community college leaders who are eager to plow ahead worried.

Marty Alvarado, executive vice chancellor for educational services in the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, told Inside Higher Ed her team has been hard at work for the past several months “getting clarity on the intent of the legislation in order to ensure that the students actually benefit from this investment.” She said the system plans to release application materials to the state’s 116 community colleges by the end of this month and an initial wave of funding will commence by next month.

OER are usually online, openly licensed and free to students, making them an appealing alternative to far more expensive textbooks for cash-strapped college students. In California, where a three-credit community college course only costs $138, textbook costs are often higher than tuition, community college officials and advocates say. Community college leaders say more widespread use of OER will ensure more students graduate, particularly since 60 percent of California’s 1.8 million community college students are housing insecure and 50 percent are food insecure, based on data collected in 2019.

Alvarado said the many months her team has spent planning a method for data collection and other aspects of program design will prove worthwhile. She said the system had relatively little data to study from the state’s original and much smaller zero textbook cost program, which launched in 2016 and ran through 2019 with a total $5 million investment. That grant program yielded nearly $43 million in savings for students and successfully developed 37 ZTC pathways encompassing 404 courses across 19 colleges, according to the chancellor’s office, which arrived at the estimate based on what colleges reported.

Alvarado said a key focus now is on understanding how students benefit from investments in OER as opposed to subsidized textbooks, a point of differentiation that she said was not closely tracked in the original 2016 program. Alvarado is also working closely with the system’s Academic Senate to better understand how curriculum development translates into which courses are offered using OER.

Institutions will be required to report data collected to the system and account for how money was used each term.

Alvarado said her goal is to remove the cost of textbooks as a “friction point” altogether, because the expense contributes to students dropping out.

“My dream would be that we would find a way to fully subsidize the cost of textbooks going forward,” Alvarado said. “Our students are making a decision between ‘Do I eat something today?’ or ‘Do I spend $100, $200, $300 on textbooks across every course?’”

Newsom wants California to become a national model for reducing or even eliminating textbook costs for students. He said last year that the “usury nature of the costs associated with textbooks … make no sense whatsoever except to those that are the beneficiaries of huge rewards on the backs of our children.”

While the California investment dwarfs any other state investment in OER, it is not alone in experimenting with it. The State University of New York system has received $4 million per year in state funding for OER since 2017. SUNY officials said the investment in OER has so far saved students more than $66 million. They said OER spared 179,644 of 394,220 SUNY students over $19 million in the 2020–21 school year alone. (Note: This paragraph was revised to correct the annual amount of state funding the SUNY system receives for OER. The proposed allocation for the 2022-2023 academic year was not doubled to $8 million and remains at $4 million.) 

Mark McBride, who oversees open educational resources for SUNY, said research shows OER materials are of equal if not better quality than traditional textbooks and additionally offer faculty flexibility to make changes to content so their “voice can be heard in the text.”

But the cost considerations are paramount. McBride said many SUNY students are supporting not only themselves but also their families. He said he has seen scores of students fail classes when temporary access they received from publishers via professors expire.

“By the third or fourth week, a number of our publishers are putting up those blockades, so students have to make good on the payment to the publishers in order to just successfully complete a class,” McBride said. “That’s a showstopper.”

Publishers say textbook costs have declined by 36 percent over 10 years and that their long track record ensures high-quality course materials.

“One of the most important advantages of higher education publishers in the private sector is that they’re already doing a highly effective job of delivering top-quality course materials on a consistent basis over the course of time,” said Kelly Denson, vice president of education policy and programs at the Association of American Publishers. “They’re more proven.”

Denson said student spending on textbooks is just $456 per year, citing cost estimates provided by “Student Watch,” a report on student buying behaviors that is produced by OnCampus Research and paid for by the National Association of College Stores. The College Board puts the annual cost at $460 for students at two-year institutions. The National Center for Education Statistics estimated the cost of books and supplies at two-year institutions to be an average of $1,531 in 2019–20. Some, but not all, institutions count laptops as supplies, skewing the $1,531 number somewhat higher than it would be for just textbooks.

Denson said more data are needed to understand whether the original California ZTC program succeeded. She pointed to a report from the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, which questioned the recent $115 million expansion of the program, given the delays in reporting outcomes from the 2016 to 2019 iteration. Denson also said publishers have addressed concerns about costs by developing ebooks and rental programs to help students access books more affordably.

Nicole Allen, director of open education for SPARC, an advocacy organization that promotes open access, disputed the notion that publishers have moved to digital books to create savings, arguing that since Amazon, Chegg and eBay have made it easier to buy used books, publishers have shifted to digital books to goose profits. She noted that “Student Watch” found textbook spending increased by 10 percent in 2020–21.

“The textbook industry is trying to shift to a model where they get to automatically bill students for short-term access to digital materials, and that comes with a whole set of concerns in terms of repeating that cycle of prices rising rapidly,” Allen said. “The watershed that we’re in right now is the opportunity to think bigger about models for course materials that leverage open educational resources in a larger-scale way.”

Whatever the true cost of textbooks, OER advocates say even the smallest amount of money spent on them can make the difference in whether a student earns a degree. Many low-income students simply can’t afford course materials and try to skate through without them, which inevitably leads to poor academic outcomes.

James Glapa-Grossklag, academic dean at College of the Canyons, a community college in California, served as technical assistance provider for the California Community Colleges ZTC program from 2016 to 2019. He said the research shows that the adoption of OER increases student success, particularly for low-income students. California Community Colleges is the largest public education system in the country, which Glapa-Grossklag said often means, “where California goes in higher education, so goes the nation.”

Glapa-Grossklag scoffed at publishers asserting average textbook costs are only $460.

“Twenty dollars for a textbook is expensive if you don’t have $20,” Glapa-Grossklag said. “We are not here to educate the elite.”

Geoffrey Baum, executive director of the Michelson Philanthropies, which advocated for the state’s OER investment, called Newsom’s commitment “a watershed moment for OER and for educational equity.”

Baum, who previously served as president of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors, said about half of community college students get complete tuition fee waivers based on income, but large course-material fees remain a vexing problem. He said the organization got involved after the founder of the philanthropy saw an article about community college faculty members digging into their own pockets to cover textbook fees for students who were going without the books and often dropping out because of it.

“This is the most challenged group of students, but are those in whom we depend the most for the future of our country for everything to work,” Baum said. “We can’t control the cost of housing, we can’t control the cost of food, we can’t control the cost of health care. But the system and the players within the system can at least control the cost of instructional materials.”

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