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Downloadable and Free: The Next Generation of College Textbooks Is Here

A Rice University online repository project goes national, taking on the traditional publishing industry over book costs that add thousands to student debt.
Sep 12, 2014· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s a hidden cost of higher education, a mandatory expense that can add hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year to a tuition bill and overall student debt.

Despite the best efforts of Congress, on-campus entrepreneurs, and the used-book market, the cost of textbooks continues to spiral, adding as much as $1,200 a year to college costs.

But help for students staggering under the weight of textbooks that can cost $150 apiece—or more—is just a computer click away. At Rice University, a team of computer engineers and educators has created OpenStax, a virtual library of open-source-based, digital tablet–friendly e-textbooks, available for free to students nationwide through an online repository.

Big universities such as the University of Kansas, University of Missouri, and University of Oklahoma, as well as smaller private schools such as the University of Pennsylvania and Xavier University, have adopted the platform. It allows students to use the textbooks on e-readers, download them, and print their own copies. Students can also use software to customize them or pay for a professional-quality bound version for a fraction of what one would cost at a campus bookstore.

Daniel Williamson, OpenStax’s managing director, says he and his computer science colleagues at Rice, using grants from nonprofit education foundations, created the repository in 2012 under a two-part premise: Knowledge can’t be copyrighted, and everyone should have access to it.

“We believe that the content in [for-profit] textbooks is foundational. No one should own it,” Williamson says, noting that Newton’s theories of physics have been taught for centuries around the world. “When you charge for that content, you lock out a certain segment of the population. We just believe in [eliminating] that price barrier.”

A nonprofit organization launched with $9 million in grants, OpenStax has a downloadable library of seven college-level textbooks on subjects such as biology, algebra, and physics. He says the organization has saved students more than $20 million in textbook costs since 2012 and is on track to save them $14 million more this academic year.

But the Association of American Publishers, an industry trade group representing textbook producers such as McGraw Hill, has a problem with OpenStax’s plan. In a fact sheet on its website, the association warns students: If free textbooks sound too good to be true, they probably are.

“When universities and other non-profits produce free textbooks, you should ask: Is funding coming from students’ tuition fees?” the fact sheet asks. “If government-funded, is content independent of political interference? Is content digital or just print, and is technology current and upgraded? Is the content accessible to people with print disabilities?”

It’s clear that OpenStax has struck a nerve.

A 2013 report by the federal Government Accountability Office found that textbook prices have risen so much that students struggle to purchase even used books. Those who can’t find book shares or affordable used versions often skip buying them entirely. In a January 2014 survey of more than 2,000 students, the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Resource Group found that 65 percent passed on buying at least one textbook because it was too expensive, and 94 percent who did so worried their grades would suffer as a result. A 2013 post on Bookgator.com identifying the 10 most expensive college textbooks found prices including $500 for a physics text, $700 for a book on the history of early film, and more than $1,400 for a single philosophy volume.

Congress tried to tackle textbook costs last November, when Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois introduced a bill that would fund open-textbook pilot programs on campuses across the country, but the bill languished in Congress.

The Association of American Publishers argues that textbook costs are high because of the extensive research, copy editing, and fact checking involved in making sure the information is accurate, as well as the high-quality images and production. Moreover, the association’s fact sheet notes that many publishers are offering a range of lower-cost options, including textbook rentals and e-books that cost far less than newer volumes in campus bookstores.

Nevertheless, Williamson says textbook publishers have a near unbreakable hold on the market and build in obsolescence in every volume. The big publishers, he says, often substantially revise their books every few years, making them more expensive and harder for students to resell.

It’s also important to keep perspective, says Williamson. At Rice, where tuition costs around $50,000 a year, $1,000 for textbooks “is not that much money.” But at a community college, which requires many of the same books, he says, “students are paying $300 for a book and $300 for tuition.”

Since OpenStax became widely available in 2012, Williamson says, it has “expanded exponentially.” About 1,400 students nationwide have accessed the repository in the past two years, and he expects 1,000 students to use OpenStax this academic year alone.

Perhaps most convincing, Williamson says, is that only 10 percent of OpenStax users print out the books. The overwhelming majority use the information on laptops, tablets, or handheld devices.

“To me, that’s a pretty compelling statistic,” he says. “We’re right at the cusp of a turning point. I don’t think we’ll be the straw that broke the camel’s back, but we’re at an interesting inflection point.”