Let’s help students in difficulty rather than benefit textbook publishers

Credit: Julie Leopo/EdSource

When you’re homeless and struggling to eat, going to college is a big challenge. Nearly 40% of college students reported experiencing food insecurity, and at any given time, 1 in 5 community college students are homeless. Then add tuition and the price of textbooks, whatever the market, and earning a degree is a near impossibility.

This is not Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “California Dream” or the Legislature where every person has the opportunity to succeed to the fullest extent of their ability.

While we may not be able to control the cost of gas, rent, and food, we can make a difference in the price students pay for textbooks. University textbook prices have risen more than the average rate of inflation and have risen 178% since 2000. Access to resources, competition as a means of price control, and lack of price transparency as to which option is actually the cheapest have all contributed to this increase.

It’s no surprise, then, that 35% of California students say they don’t have enough money to pay for textbooks and supplies, creating overwhelming barriers for these students to learn and graduate.

Recognizing this problem, California has taken action. In 2021, Governor Newsom and the Legislature earmarked $115 million for a statewide Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) curriculum that would increase the availability of pathways in the California Community system. Middle School. These pathways would allow students to earn a degree or certification without spending a dime on textbooks.

With this funding, the governor has made a bold commitment to fight “the textbook racketeering in this country.” He went on to say that in California, “we have an obligation to disrupt this whole system nationwide.”

We agree that it is time to disrupt the existing unaffordable system with a sustainable, statewide implementation of the program that will create a future where students and educators have access to high-quality course materials. , accessible, customizable and free through the use of Open Educational Resources or OER. The expansion of open educational resources will relieve students of the burden of expensive course materials and improve academic outcomes. Additionally, the legislation specifically prioritizes the use of open educational resources to create degrees without textbooks.

With an open, resource-focused curriculum, students have higher pass rates. According to a 2018 study, the number of students with A and A minus grades increased by 5.50% and 7.73% respectively when students had access to free open-licensed material, while the number of students who dropped out or got D or F grades dropped. of 2.68%. In addition, students from marginalized backgrounds benefited more from courses using open educational resources. Using these resources not only provides students with free textbooks, but also facilitates the integration of culturally appropriate teaching approaches.

Through open educational resources, educators have the ability to redesign, revise, and update their courses, incorporating specific student needs into the process. Students never lose access to their materials, unlike the time-limited access to digital resources provided to students by commercial publishers. They have unlimited access and can view their course materials at no additional cost.

But there is a real and present danger for California to develop a comprehensive library of necessary open educational resource textbooks and diplomas without textbook cost. It is the attempt of corporate interests to subvert these funds into a temporary pay-as-you-go content system in a for-profit model by paying for commercial digital access codes rather than long-term solutions. – the very thing that this visionary investment was meant to disrupt.

However, we are encouraged by recent announcements that the Office of the Chancellor of California Community Colleges plans to initiate the distribution of Zero Textbook Cost program funds with planning grants to allow campuses to chart a course to bring down the cost of zero textbooks for some degrees and then apply for bigger grants to see that plan come to fruition.

System-wide involvement is necessary to achieve the legislation’s goal of ensuring “the development and implementation of the greatest number of degrees for the benefit of the greatest number of students” (California Education Code 78052(c)).

Ideally, system-level support structures will be established, and future funding will support the robust development and adoption of free resources and textbook-free courses across colleges. Disbursed strategically, this funding can drive meaningful and sustained progress toward a more equitable education system by ensuring all colleges benefit.

A critical element is to adopt a culture of transparency. Data collection is key to improving transparency and accountability, but it will also be a valuable resource for other states as California can demonstrate how we can make college more affordable and accessible.

We encourage the California Community Colleges Board of Trustees to accelerate the implementation of the ZTC program with a thoughtful and effective distribution of the $115 million that will remove financial barriers and create a sustainable program that benefits all students.


Gary K. Michelson, MD, is founder and co-chair of the Michelson 20MM Foundation and the Michelson Center for Public Policy, which supports innovative uses of technology to provide more accessible and affordable high-quality educational opportunities.

Michelle Pilati is a professor of psychology at Rio Hondo College in Whittier and the Academic Senate Faculty Coordinator for the California Community Colleges Open Educational Resources Initiative.

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