Lawmakers eye expanding electronic, open-source access to combat college textbook costs

Reading books with an E-book
Textbook costs have risen faster than the cost of housing, medical services and the consumer price index.

State lawmakers are looking at how to further cut costs for college students by expanding access to electronic and open-source textbooks, building on the successful passing of legislation earlier this year creating a digital academic library network.

Members of the House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee meeting Thursday took in a presentation by Dr. John Opper, executive director of distance learning and student services at the Florida Virtual Campus, and several prominent state college and university figures.

The intent, said Rep. Rene Plasencia, the subcommittee chair, was to continue a push toward low-cost, no-cost and open access to e-textbooks, a trend running in tandem with the increased digitization of media.

“The education industry is moving in that direction, rightfully so,” he said. “We want to make sure that we’re proactively, as a body, making sure we are engaging in that conversation and not an impediment to any growth that is possible.”

In June, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 847, which created the Florida Postsecondary Academic Library Network. The network consolidated a range of resources and responsibilities for the operation of a centralized library system in Florida, allowing for the coordination and operation of an online distance-learning catalogue and centralized advising services for all 40 public higher education institutions in the state.

That and other advances the Florida Virtual Campus has made have helped to lower the costs students bear, but it’s an uphill battle, Opper said, citing findings from a 2018 survey on student textbooks and course materials the organization conducted in 2018. Another survey is planned for 2022.

In 2016, 53% of students said they spent more than $300 per semester on textbooks. Two years later, 56% said they spent less than that, marking the first time since Florida Virtual Campus began the survey that a majority of students reported reduced spending.

That’s in spite of skyrocketing textbook costs. Over the last two decades, the cost of textbooks has risen about 145% — a rate steeper than the cost of housing, medical services, recreational books and the consumer price index.

There are several reasons for the downtrend. The biggest reason, students said, was a change in structures around textbook rentals. Essentially, college bookstores have eased rules against writing in textbooks and the condition in which they may be returned.

Another contributing factor is that the cost of electronic textbooks, once priced the same as their physical counterparts, has fallen.

“In the face of a lot of pushback from our college-universities across the country and some really good commentary by economists … the prices were driven down in the market,” Opper said.

But many students remain disadvantaged. When asked about the impact textbook costs have on their studies, 43% of respondents said they took fewer courses, 41% said they forwent registering for specific courses because of the cost of the accompanying textbook, 36% said they earned a poor grade because they couldn’t afford the book and 23% said they dropped a course.

The graph Opper used to demonstrate how steeply textbook costs have risen over the last two decades.

Schools are leveraging technology to lower those numbers, an effort several administrators supercharged during the pandemic.

Florida A&M University has developed several initiatives centered around cutting textbook costs, said Sundra Kincey, assistant vice president of program quality. That includes providing English composition courses and college algebra textbooks to students at no cost. FAMU also uses an inclusive access model with vendor Cengage to allow students to access the company’s more than 22,000 textbooks for $125 a year, regardless of what courses they take.

At Florida International University, 75% of course sections offer low- to no-cost materials, said Lia Prevolis, interim assistant vice president. FIU’s Affordability Counts program, which was created in response to rising textbook costs, aims to lower the price of individual course materials to $20 per credit hour or less through various means, including offering open-access, low-cost materials and e-books. Qualifying classes are denoted by an Affordability Counts medallion.

FIU has developed a landing page for the program for statewide use. Partners now include the University of Central Florida, University of North Florida, University of South Florida, Florida Atlantic University, Lake Sumpter College and FAMU. As of the spring 2021 semester, 13,000 faculty across the state have participated in the program, with more than 1,900 courses earning the medallion.

Santa Fe College, among other things, offers a free electronic homework and practice platform for the school’s most popular courses, like intermediate algebra, and provides some textbooks through OpenStax, a free online repository for textbooks and other school resources, said Stephanie Waschull, associate vice president of academic affairs.

UCF has an in-house program supporting faculty development of multimedia materials, “which we really know is the cutting edge of learning at this point,” said writing and rhetoric professor Melody Bowdon, who serves on the University Press of Florida Editorial Board.

Students, she said, want more “agile kinds of access” to class materials, and the school has responded to that demand. In the 2020-21 school year, the use of free and open education resources saved students more than $1.7 million.

Over the last decade, Valencia College has developed its own instructional materials, which it provides to students at no cost, said Wendy Dew, assistant vice president of teaching and learning.

That includes the Valencia Reader and the Valencia Writer, “a living, open-source textbook” English faculty developed. It’s updated every semester with short stories poems, plays, novels and essays.

Math faculty at the school built a no-cost, interactive, intermediate algebra course. Valencia also offers an entire bachelor of science degree course using only open-source materials. Over the summer, 63 faculty members convened to curate and develop more open resources.

“As part of this experience, professional development is really important,” she said. “We need to provide lots of support for faculty to navigate and locate (open education resources) and use them in their courses.”

This fall, 30% of Valencia’s courses, nearly 2,000 classes, came with no required instructional materials for purchase.

“In 2012, the average cost of our textbooks per course was $126,” she said. “Today, it’s about $55.”

Seminole State College engages in many of the same practices, President Georgia Lorenz said. The school is “anxiously” moving toward adopting an open resources model.

“Life happens, and (students) may need to drop a course,” she said. “If they have digitally rented that textbook, they lose access to that and would have to purchase it again. With open educational resources, it’s there’s forever.”

Many solutions to problems bring their own issues. That applies here, Lorenz said.

“Not all hardware and internet access is equal,” she said. “As digital textbooks and open educational resources gain in popularity, we’re going to have to consider the cost related to that hardware and internet access.”

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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