As prices soar, U expands oasis of free textbooks

Nine colleges nationwide have now joined the University’s Open Textbook Network.

Carter Jones

The average U.S. college student will spend about $1,200 on books and supplies this year, according to the College Board — but students from around the nation have saved an estimated $1.5 million by seeking more affordable textbooks using a University of Minnesota program. 
 
The University’s Open Textbook Network has helped students across nine colleges and Universities lower that cost over the last year, according to a University press release.
 
The initiative comes at a time when the cost of textbooks has increased 1000 percent since 1977.
 
“We’ve realized high textbook costs can have a negative impact on how students do in the class,” said David Ernst, director of the Center for Open Education and executive director of the network. “That’s really what we’re trying to fix here — to make sure all students have access to course materials when they need them.”
 
Lawmakers have also jumped into the textbook cost discussion. Earlier this month, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., was among a group of congressmen who 
introduced legislation that would offer grants to help schools create open textbook programs similar to the University’s.
 
Through the University’s program, open textbooks are funded, published and licensed to be free and available for students in print for a low cost. The University’s textbook program was started in 2012.
 
Nearly 200 textbooks in subject areas like economics, law and mathematics are available through the network.
 
Over the last year the network has grown to include 25 colleges and universities such as the University of Arizona, University of Iowa and Purdue University. 
 
Ernst said the program has had few drawbacks so far. 
 
“It’s about getting to faculty and letting them know this choice is out there,” he said.
 
Mark Perry, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and an economics and finance professor at the University of Michigan-Flint said the “textbook bubble is starting to burst.” 
 
No two products have become more expensive than college books and college tuition, Perry said. 
 
“In the digital age it seems out-of-date to have a model like this,” he said, “We’ll see a lot more competition. In the same way Wikipedia competed against [encyclopedias] and Craigslist competed against classified ads in newspapers.” 
 
Perry said mergers in the industry have helped lead to an unsustainable pricing model.
 
Factors like new editions that flood the market every year and professors who are reluctant to change their curriculum or are oblivious to the costs of books on students have also driven prices up, he said. 
 
But as a younger generation of faculty members embrace the open textbooks model, textbook costs should decrease. 
 
“That will facilitate a market change that’s very competitive, with prices that are affordable for students,” Perry said.