With higher ed costs rising, libraries offer free textbooks

Only 25 percent of faculty are aware that more affordable materials are readily available.

Illustrated by Abby Adamski

Abby Adamski

Illustrated by Abby Adamski

Jake Steinberg

For Rebecca Swenson, an assistant professor of agricultural communication and marketing, the cost of her course’s textbook wasn’t adding up.

She used a standard business communications textbook, but she said it was too general to justify making 100 students pay $90 every semester. She sought a solution that better aligned with her environmental content.

An answer to her problem came in an email from the library: an affordable content grant that would help her replace the expensive textbook. Now, Swenson said her course materials are more specific  — and at no cost to her students.

With higher education costs rising, two University of Minnesota organizations hope the University Senate will recognize the libraries as an increasingly important partner in reducing student costs. The Senate Library Committee and the Minnesota Student Association are drafting separate calls for increased resources for the libraries’ affordable content programs.

“What my committee is trying to do is make sure, while we’re preserving the superior quality of our institution, that we’re making materials as affordable as possible,” said MSA Academic Affairs Director Jacques Frank-Loron. 

MSA received pushback after previous attempts. Some professors don’t like to be told how to teach their class, Frank-Loron said. “It’s perceived as it’s extra, or they have to recreate the curriculum in a different way,” he said. 

The University Libraries’ eLearning Support Initiative development lead Kristi Jensen said the biggest barrier to adopting affordable content is lack of awareness.

“I think faculty have a lot of things on their plate,” Jensen said. “If they have something that has worked for them, they might not have kept up with this really complex environment when it comes to course content. The publishers are offering new models almost every time you turn around.”

A 2016 survey by the Babson Survey Research Group found that 50 percent of faculty said cost was a “very important” factor in selecting course materials, but only about 25 percent were aware that more affordable materials were readily available.

The average University undergraduate spends $1,000 on course materials per year, according to One Stop Student Services.

The libraries offer grants, consulting and a vast collection of free content to faculty looking to reduce the cost of their course material. Jensen said the libraries’ grants may have saved students nearly $6 million between fall 2015 to spring 2018 .

Math professor Mike Weimerskirch taught a “pretty standard” precalculus class. He’d lecture for an hour and assign homework from Pearson’s MyMathLab. His withdrawal rate was standard too — about 10 percent.

Weimerskirch used an affordable content grant to replace Pearson with an online video textbook. That way, he said, he can devote class time to helping students work through problems.

After the switch, Weimerskirch said his withdrawal rate plummeted. As did the cost of his class. The old book was over $100. University Libraries estimate the switch saved his students $155,000 across all of his courses in one semester.

“Why are students paying for this stuff anymore? They should be able to get it for free,” he said.