Free textbooks? It could soon be a reality in California’s community colleges. Community colleges could give out free textbooks – CalMatters

in summary

The California Community College Chancellor’s Office can spend $115 million to reduce the burden of textbook costs on its 115-campus system. One approach, already being developed by some community colleges, is for campuses to publish their own textbooks and course materials.

For the past decade, Teague O’Shea has attended and graduated from college. Now, at 42, he’s trying again. Furthering his education was important to O’Shea, who had worked as an apprentice electrician for his local water supply area, but the rising costs of the college made him question its worth.

“California is a really expensive place to live and I’m already paying for college,” O’Shea said. “I pay $463 for three classes and I’m like, ‘That’s fine.’ But I can’t imagine working full time and paying more. I can’t imagine spending more money on books – I wouldn’t be happy.”

O’Shea is working on his associate’s degree in the Water Systems Technology program, which prepares students for careers in wastewater management or drinking water distribution and treatment. The program covers at least one important cost: All O’Shea courses use free, non-copyrighted materials created by the college itself. That takes some of the pressure off O’Shea, he said, so he can focus on his goal of becoming a certified water works manager.

“I feel like I’m ready to get back into the industry,” he said.

California college students spend an average of $938 per year on textbooks and materials, according to the 2021-2022 study by the California Student Aid Commission’s Student Expenses and Resources Survey.

One idea being considered by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office is funding community colleges to produce their own textbooks. The system must decide how to spend $115 million in federal funds to reduce the burden of textbook costs. Each community college receives $20,000 to develop programs without textbook costs and another $180,000 to implement them. Some colleges also receive larger, competitive grants.

Colleges could spend the money on anything from publishing their own textbooks to using free, publicly available textbooks — known as “open educational resources” — created by professors at other schools. You could also just give some students money to buy traditional textbooks.

“So we really do see textbooks almost as a symptom of a larger issue surrounding student financial stability, right? In particular, the students we serve and who come into our colleges, many of whom are already in deficit without adequate funding,” said Rebecca Ruan-O’Shaughnessy, vice chancellor for educational services and support at the Chancellery.

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Many community colleges already have some classes that use open educational resources, which are often labeled as “zero textbook costs” in course catalogs. But these courses often fill up quickly, Ruan-O’Shaughnessy said, and students don’t always know they’re available.

“The nationwide approach will help standardize and streamline the process so students can get into class with a low cost of classroom materials.”

Jerry Vakshylyak, a student at Mission College in Santa Clara who serves on the newly created California Community Colleges Textbook Costs Task Force

Overall, open educational resources have not yet gained the same level of traction as traditional publishers. Even at College of the Canyons, one of the colleges investing the most in the approach, only 35% of professors use open educational resources. And while many colleges give textbook scholarships to some eligible students, they usually have to jump through administrative hurdles to get them.

Ruan-O’Shaughnessy said the chancellery wants to collect data on course-free courses at the state’s 115 community colleges, identify achievements previously limited to individual campuses or regions, and create a long-term, sustainable model.

Jerry Vakshylyak, a student at Mission College in Santa Clara who serves on the newly created California Community Colleges Textbook Costs Task Force, recalls spending $300 on a French textbook two semesters ago.

“It was just absolutely crazy to have an online copy for this French textbook,” said Vakshylyak. He now makes sure to enroll in courses with no textbook cost options. “I’m mostly in ZTC courses, mostly because of the potential burden of textbook costs,” Vakshylyak said.

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Vakshylak said this kind of help should be available to all students.

“The nationwide approach will help standardize and streamline the process so students can get into class with a low cost of classroom materials,” he said.

Students have found creative ways to access academic materials. Since 2009, the Z-Library website has been a hub for free scholarly journals and full college textbooks. But last year the federal government shut it down over alleged copyright infringement. The online library is now available again, but users must log in, where they are redirected to a personal domain.

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Rene Jimenez, a student at East Los Angeles College, rents his textbooks, which he says saves him hundreds of dollars each semester. “Borrowing makes so much sense when you’re meeting your general needs because you rarely need the textbooks for other classes,” Jimenez said. “Most of the time it’s a lot cheaper, so it relieves some of the financial burden, which is important when everything is so, so expensive these days.”

Some proponents say the recent focus on material costs is an opportunity for a major shift in the textbook business, and that colleges throughout the system should create their own cache of materials and textbooks that best serve the students who need them.

“It’s just a different way of thinking about how we use information resources and education and looking at them more as part of the infrastructure that we teach and learn on as opposed to products that you buy from a publisher,” said Nicole Allen, who ran a textbook cost campaign as a student before becoming communications director at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting more open educational resources. “And I think that mindset shift is a really big opportunity in California.”

A 2023 report by the Student Public Interest Research Group found that every dollar invested in open educational resources saves students $10 to $20. One of the benefits of investing in open educational resources is the continued use of them after the initial investment, Allen said.

“There are such compelling arguments for investing in these types of resources. Because if you can build them, you can use them,” Allen said. “And others can use them too, unlike traditional textbooks where if you buy a yearly subscription to a digital textbook, you have to buy that subscription again next year, and next year, and next year.”

Tyler Reed, senior director of communications at McGraw Hill, one of the country’s largest textbook publishers, says everyone involved in higher education has a duty to provide courseware of a value that students can afford.

“We believe there is a place in the higher education ecosystem for all courseware options, including open educational resources. Let’s give institutions, educators, and students the widest possible choice,” Reed said in a statement to CalMatters.

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The College of the Canyons has created a new division focused on finding, adapting, authoring, and publishing open educational resources. Current and former students are employed by the college to mix and match free online texts into coherent works to meet their needs, said James Glapa-Grossklag, the college’s dean of educational technology, learning resources and distance learning.

“So we see textbooks almost as a symptom of a larger problem around student financial stability.”

Rebecca Ruan-O’Shaughnessy, Vice Chancellor for Education Services and Assistance at the Federal Chancellery.

When faculty members decide they need to write new material to meet the needs of their class, the College of the Canyons provides a stipend.

The campus has had some success with this model. However, adoption has been slowed by the fact that the college offers many specialized disciplines, such as occupational therapy, welding and auto mechanics, for which online educational resources currently do not exist, Glapa-Grossklag said.

“There’s definitely a divide between the liberal arts and STEM majors,” said Kyra Karatsu, a College of the Canyons graduate student working on the project. “There are all these resources for majors like communications or history. But when you start looking at subjects like math or even chemistry, there aren’t many resources there.”

One reason is the lock the traditional textbook industry has on these disciplines, said Mark Healy, the Foothill-DeAnza Community College District open educational resources coordinator, another early adopter of free textbooks. Math textbook publishers often bundle online textbooks with other resources like online tests, he said, and charge students hundreds of dollars for access codes that need to be renewed if they take classes again.

Healy, who is also a psychology professor, did all of his courses at zero textbook cost. “It’s really great to be able to tell students that they don’t have to pay anything to take the course other than tuition,” he said.

Story and González are fellows of the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists across California. This story and other coverage of higher education is supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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