Franken pushes for more open textbooks

A bill he co-wrote could save students $1,200 per year on average.

by Jessica Lee

Congress is mulling a proposal that would promote the use of free online educational materials nationwide — an action higher education advocates say is crucial to combat the rising costs of textbooks.

U.S. Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., introduced a bill last month to implement open-source textbook programs, a move that follows the University of Minnesota’s increased use of the platform.

Traditional textbook prices rose more than 80 percent from 2002 to 2012, according to a June report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The bill would establish a grant program to help develop open-source textbook programs at universities across the country, similar to the University’s open textbook library created by the College of Education and Human Development.

Since last year, 11 CEHD faculty members have used open textbooks in their course curricula. The move saved students about $145,000 over three semesters, according to CEHD director of academic technology David Ernst.

Minnesota Student Legislative Coalition Chairperson Matt Forstie said the University is on the forefront of the movement to deter textbook costs, but it should consider expanding open textbook libraries elsewhere.

“This is the future of course content in higher education,” he said.

Six states have passed legislation in the last four years to either create educational laptop programs or change the definition of a “textbook” to include digital content and the resources necessary to utilize digital content.

Minnesota State University Student Association Executive Director Elsbeth Howe said she plans to advocate next session to cut textbook prices in Minnesota and increase open enrollment resources. The bill is an encouraging step to help cut costs of textbooks nationwide, she said.

U.S. Public Interest Research Group higher education associate Ethan Senack, who worked with Durbin to create the bill, said it would lessen textbook publishers’ control on the market.

“We really want to see publishers reform their practices and offer students a fair deal,” he said.

University Bookstores Director Bob Crabb said about 82 percent of textbook sales go directly to publishers. Increasing open textbook use would lower overall prices as demand shifts, he said.

Forstie said the open textbook legislation puts “competitive pressure” on publishers to change how they serve consumers.

According to a 2011 college student survey by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, about 70 percent of respondents said they had not purchased a textbook at least once due to cost.

Ariel Diaz, founder and CEO of the open-textbook company Boundless Learning, wrote in an email statement that the legislation’s discussion is happening at the right time.

“With the cost of higher education skyrocketing, it’s important that we usher in an affordable, digital, post-textbook era,” he said in the statement.

Geography assistant professor Kurt Kipfmueller said he’s considered removing required readings from his curriculum because of the cost.

“Textbook costs are out of control as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

If passed, the bill would direct the U.S. Department of Education to establish the grant program and determine which schools are eligible, Franken said in an email statement.

The bill is sitting in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. The bill’s House companion, authored by Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, is in the committee on education and the workforce.