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Open Textbooks Help Students Cut Costs

Courtney O'Hagen's psychology class is using an open textbook through Carnegie Mellon University's Open Learning Initiative.

College students in the U.S. average $1,200 in textbook costs per year. This month SUNY took steps to cut that cost with its Affordable Learning Solutions program.

Courtney O’Hagen is a SUNY Broome psychology professor with a common problem: her students don’t read their textbook. But recently O’Hagen realized they’re not reading it because they’re not buying it.

“So I asked them what their reason was for not purchasing the textbook, and for many of them it was that they could not afford the textbook,” O’Hagen says.

That’s true for freshman Kati Heatherman. She says because of the cost, she only bought one of her books this semester.

“That’s a lot of money,” she says. “I have two-year-old son, I can’t afford that kind of money.”

So O’Hagen found a solution. She got rid of the standard book and is using an “open textbook.”

Students access the book for free online. “Open textbook” means the material has an open copyright license. Students can download and read a PDF or print it out.

Starting with California in 2012, university systems in almost every state have begun developing and publishing open textbooks. In New York, Open SUNY has just completed its second year. It provides professor-written and reviewed books at no cost.

O’Hagen says with her free book, almost everyone is reading.

“If the idea of community college really is access to education for everyone,” she says, “Then I think something that we should be considering, truly, is accessing these materials that students need for the course for free as well.”

But in spite of the cost benefit, lots of professors are not so quick to embrace open textbooks. SUNY Broome math professor John Urrea says, you get what you pay for. Traditional textbooks come with extras like worksheets.

“Where if you pick up an open source, you have to develop your own worksheets,” he says. “And those are very time consuming.”

Keeping open textbooks updated is another concern. Traditional publishers put out new editions, raising the cost, but open books don’t.

“A lot of this work has been funded by grants,” says Amber Gilewski, a faculty fellow with a national open textbook project. “When the grant money runs out, then who does the upkeep of keeping things updated?”

The upkeep problem means “open textbook” may not always equal “free textbook.” At SUNY Broome, the website Courtney O’Hagen uses for her psychology class will start updating its books, and charging for access, in 2016. O’Hagen says students may have to pay a fee to take the course. But it would still be cheaper than going to the bookstore.