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Open Textbooks Could Help Students Financially and Academically

As the price of college textbooks continues to increase, more students are opting to skip the books even if their grades suffer, a survey conducted by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group has found. In a report released on Monday, the group said open textbooks—written by faculty members, peer-reviewed, and available free online—could help make textbooks affordable again.

For the report, “Fixing the Broken Textbook Market,” more than 2,000 students at 156 college campuses in 33 states were surveyed during the fall of 2013. Sixty-five percent of the students said they were not buying all of their required textbooks because of the books’ cost, and 94 percent of those who didn’t buy the books reported being concerned about how that would affect their grades. About 48 percent said that the cost of textbooks had influenced their decisions about which and how many classes to take.

The research group estimates that each student could save about $100 per class by using open textbooks. Those are textbooks with open copyright licenses that are available free online, although students who want printed versions would pay modest fees.

The College Board estimates that the average student attending a four-year public college will spend $1,200 on books and supplies this year. According to a 2013 study by the Government Accountability Office, textbook prices have increased by 82 percent in a 10-year period, far more than consumer prices.

Although many publishers are moving toward e-textbooks and many colleges offer options such as textbook rentals or used books, students are restricted by paywalls or expiration dates. Prices for those options are also dictated by the cost of new editions of the print version, said Ethan Senack, the higher-education associate at PIRG’s office in Washington and the author of the new report.

The survey found that 82 percent of students said they would have done better in class if they had had free access to the required materials, Mr. Senack said during a conference call with reporters.

“This report confirms our fear—that textbook prices are not only hurting students’ wallets but also their grades and even their academic decisions,” said Samantha Zwerling, the student-body president at the University of Maryland at College Park and director of legislative affairs at the Association of Big Ten Students. The association recently passed a resolution to encourage faculty members to evaluate and consider open textbooks as a way of reducing the cost for students.

Irene Duranczyk, an associate professor of postsecondary teaching and learning at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, said her students had had positive reactions to open textbooks. She began using open textbooks in the fall of 2012 out of concern about the cost of the required materials.

“I assigned the open textbook to half of my class while using a traditional text for the other half. The traditional textbook for my class cost about $180. The open textbook was free online, with the print version costing $32 at the bookstore,” Ms. Duranczyk said.

She said the students’ positive reactions encouraged other professors to consider the cheaper option. The University of Minnesota created an open-textbook library in April 2012 to provide more-affordable book options.

“They were happy, and so was I,” Ms. Duranczyk said. ”I could maintain my high standard of quality instruction while having the ability to customize the text to fit my teaching style.”

Mr. Senack said the survey was a snapshot of student opinion and not a statistically representative sample of college students. The research group focused on campuses accessible to PIRG chapters and volunteers, who collected the data in person. Some students also received online survey questionnaires.

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