Ailts: Open textbooks and the future of higher education

After years of the Affordable Textbook Act being reintroduced in Congress, we should pay attention this time around.

by Ellen Ailts

Last month, Senator Al Franken reintroduced the Affordable Textbook Act in Congress – this is a bill Franken has been trying to push for the past few years, but has yet to make real headway. This bill needs to be taken seriously by Congress. 

Textbooks are a fast-rising expense for college students and an increasingly important issue. College students in Minnesota spend around $1,300 on textbooks, and between 2002 and 2013, the price of college textbooks has soared 82 percent (almost three times the rate of inflation). According to research by the advocacy group U.S. PIRG, 65 percent of students have decided to not purchase a textbook because it was too expensive, and as a result were seriously concerned about their grade. Additionally, half of students surveyed said they choose what classes, or how many classes, to take based upon the cost of the textbook and 82 percent felt they would perform better in a class if the textbook was made available online, with a hard copy being optional. It’s clear the lack of accessible textbooks is seriously limiting and harming the academic potential of students — with the near-monopoly that publishers have over both print and textbook formats, these prices are unlikely to decrease. 

An “open textbook” system seems our most promising solution. An “open textbook” is free, online and available to download, and represents a future in which college education is more affordable and accessible for all. These textbooks are obtainable under an open license, which allows professors, students and researchers to access the material, free of charge. It’s been seen to provide financial relief for many students — according to the University of Minnesota’s Open Textbook Network, students from nine colleges and universities nationwide have saved $1.5 million by providing open textbooks. The Open Textbook Network has made a start in providing some books to students, and some professors already provide open textbooks for their courses, which not only helps students, but allows professors to make courses more flexible and tailored to their needs. It’s obvious that widespread implementation of this system would be enormously beneficial for universities. Franken’s bill would implement solutions like creating a grant program to support and expand the use of open textbook, and making all the resources created with the program free and accessible. It would establish requirements that publishers must make textbooks available for individual purchase, rather than in bundles. The bill would also require entities who receive funds to complete reports on the effectiveness of the program, as well require the Government Accountability Office to update Congress on price trends of textbooks. 

College is becoming more expensive, and therefore more inaccessible — with the recent decision by the University to raise out-of-state tuition prices, there should be more initiatives to lower the cost of college in other ways. If the cost of college continues to skyrocket in the way it has, fewer young people will be able to afford a college degree — an important asset in finding a meaningful and fulfilling career. Uplifting young people through education should be higher education’s ultimate goal, and making college as affordable as possible is a crucial way to realize it.