There is much talk these days about the ways colleges, and perhaps the government, can reduce the cost of higher education. But one option for reducing expenses has mostly flown under the radar: radically transforming the textbook.
While soaring debt loads at high-priced private colleges attract the most media attention, the College Board has noted that half of all full-time students attend institutions that charge tuition and fees of $10,300 or less. And for students at those institutions, textbooks can be a big chunk of the cost—and even the difference between affordability and unaffordability. The College Board estimates that the average student spends $1,400 per year on textbooks and course materials. Over the course of four years, that would be the equivalent of almost one-fifth of the average $29,400 in debt student borrowers carry at graduation.
David Ernst, the executive director of the Open Textbook initiative at University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, points to data that illustrates the challenge some students have covering the costs of textbooks: A Minnesota State University Association survey found 59 percent of students had been forced to delay purchasing textbooks until they'd received a financial aid check, and seven in 10 students had forgone purchasing a required textbook due to cost.
But those costs may start going down. A small, but growing, number of schools are beginning to explore the use of open-source materials instead, an option that—if adapted widely—could one day render traditional textbooks obsolete.