While books for the general public come cheaper and more readily available than ever, for a required text, students still commonly pay a price over $100, sometimes pushing $400 a book. It’s not fair, and UCC staff are trying to change that.

UCC faculty have responded by keeping up with a statewide initiative to seek and adopt no-cost and low-cost alternative texts, reference librarian Jennifer Lantrip says. UCC now also designates the classes using money saving books in the course listings on the website, to help students make choices before registration. For the first time this term, a book in the low-cost category was noted as “50 dollars or under textbook.”

A free online textbook, also called an “open educational resource” or OER (typically available in pdf document form with optional low-cost print options), began appearing last fall term as a “no-cost textbook” in UCC’s online banner system. The most recent website upgrade allows students to search the terms “no cost textbook” and “50 dollars or under textbook” in the “look up classes” area on the website to identify cost saving sections.

The creative efforts of faculty, the bookstore, librarians, and various UCC staff have already paid off for students. According to snapshot statistics based on faculty choices, the average course material costs of an AAOT degree at UCC were reduced from $2,355 in 2015 to $1,640 in 2017, a potential reduction of 30 percent. The numbers, published in a 2017 report called “Two Years and a Big Difference” by the Open Oregon Educational Resources organization, are not definitive, nor meant to rank Oregon colleges, but give clear indication of change. The average numbers in the same report for all Oregon Community Colleges show costs falling $332 or 16 percent for the two year AAOT degree.

Textbooks were not always so exorbitantly expensive. Prices rose at twice the rate of inflation from 1986 to 2005, then the curve steepened sharply in the past dozen years. The Student PIRGs reported that from 2006 to 2016, prices rose 73 percent, or four times the rate of inflation. According to a 2015 NBC review using government statistics, textbook prices increased a whopping 1041 percent, over 10 times higher from January 1977 to June 2015.

An “emergency… relating to higher education” was then declared in Oregon during the summer of 2015, stated at the top of Oregon House Bill 2871. That initiative put policies and grant money in place to help state universities and community colleges boost the use of the no-cost open educational resources and low-cost books. The bill also required the listings that now appear on course schedules at the time of registration.

The Open Oregon Educational Resources organization came on to help instructors find the cost saving alternatives. A long list of online resources in current use at state colleges by course now appears on the openoregon.org site. “There’s been lots of work nationwide to create open educational resources,” Lantrip said, “and more keep coming online.” UCC librarians have been hosting occasional workshops on the subject, and are always available to help faculty find these resources, she said.

Open Oregon also hosts seminars for faculty. Their recent report stated that the new schedule designations make it possible for students to “identify very low-cost pathways that represent an extraordinary 75 percent savings on course materials.” Open Oregon said that the entire project from 2015-2017 would not have been possible without the assistance of all 17 community college bookstore managers, including UCC’s Micque Shoemaker and lead bookstore specialist Jasmine Allen.

On the front line of providing course books and materials to students, Shoemaker and Allen work hard in innovative ways to keep prices down for students. The UCC Bookstore purchased a software tool called Verba into which staff submit book choices. The software provides an affordability score and shows a list of other options to consider. Allen also searches options for instructors, but in the end, “students, faculty, and bookstores are all at the whimsy of content providers who are eradicating the used book market and pushing all of us to digital,” she says.

The pricey print books, new or used, come in at high root costs determined by the big publishers. On the retail end, the UCC bookstore faces stiff competition for student loyalty from high volume discount sellers like Amazon. “We may lower our prices to be more competitive with them; we don’t raise them if Amazon is selling for more.  We want to offer students convenience, customer service and comparable pricing,” Allen says. Sometimes the store just can’t compete, giving the wrong impression the store is overpriced, she says.

Textbook prices went higher in the same decades the publishing business merged and consolidated, with supply now coming from five principle corporations who control 80 percent of the market, Associate Professor of Sociology Emery Smith Ph.D. concurred. While students pay the price, instructors also feel trapped. “Because they have bought up all the other publishers, we are a captive audience. There’s no real competition. You control the market, you control the price,” Smith said. “We don’t have a lot of choice. Every term I’m looking for new free books, but not seeing a lot changes.”

Smith said that quality is his first concern, cost second. He uses a free openly sourced version of a classic text he likes for his Sociology 206 class, but sticks with a good commercial book for his Soc 204 class.

There is no question that the quality of print books, with sophisticated content, layout, graphics, and perks for both instructors and students has improved dramatically over the years. Most agree that all the work, production and distribution involved justifies some higher cost. Students using expensive texts for multi-term sequences receive a better value. Yet publishers’ aggressive techniques to maintain high profits while killing the used book market have been increasingly ruthless, Smith said, and many other sources concur. The publishers keep cranking out new editions with shorter turnaround times, often less than every three years. College bookstores around the country scramble to get the same dwindling numbers of used books while they last, keeping resale prices high.

Allen said that within the past ten years the buying model of college stores has changed from “buy used, then buy new,” to one that still begins buying used before new, “but with the added elements of ebooks, rentals, OERs, digital products and more thrown into the mix—and making certain all the options are presented to students in the clearest possible way.”

Allen participated in the cost saving evolution of the OER texts appearing on course reading lists at UCC. The bookstore often provides print versions of these digital OER books. “OER is a great option to provide free or low-cost options to students. We have had great success selling OERs at low prices, which is a reminder that students are happy to pay a reasonable price for materials — free is awesome but the free formats don’t suit every student’s needs.”

Associate Professor and Science Dept. Chair Ken Carloni, Ph.D. has been one of the pioneers using OER texts at UCC. He said he began looking online for open sourced copy over five years ago. “I was so excited when E.O Smith came out with Life, the first authoritative OER for biology. The problem is, he only published it as an iBook.” He said that he and students tried to convert (hack) it to a pdf, but to no avail. Apple had given lots of free computers to schools 30 years ago, he said, and that text was aimed at the high school context. “I kept looking and finally this OpenStax outfit showed up out of Rice University.”

For Bio 211, 212 and 213 Carloni currently uses the second edition of the book Biology from OpenStax, now one of the largest free textbook publishers. Carloni said he helped review the first edition for the second edition process. “The book is heavily peer reviewed and also written by a committee,” a consortium of about 20 “educators that are doing something for science,” he said.

OpenStax also provides inexpensive hardbound print versions of their free online books. “Most students buy the book. They love the fact it is only 52 bucks. The pdf version is searchable. I put a term in the study guide and the location of every version of the word shows up,” Carloni said.

The OpenStax Biology book may fall short on graphics, but students are very willing to supplement with outside sources, Carloni said. “They go to YouTube; they go to Khan Academy. The textbook serves as a sort of nucleus of the information, but they are going out into that universe, all around,” he said. Carloni looks forward to OpenStax Microbiology and Genetics coming online for UCC courses.

Ethan Harris, a Forest Management student, in one quarter took three science courses all using OpenStax OER texts: physics, chemistry, and biology. “It saved me a bunch of money and a bunch of weight on my back,” he said. Harris echoed Carloni’s comments about the shortage of colorful graphics and photos in the OpenStax Biology book. He said he wanted to see diagrams of organisms and physical processes. “It wasn’t as much of a drawback as you would think, because I’m already on my computer with my book, so I just open another tab and click on YouTube” he said.

Harris acknowledged a drawback that many feel by not having a physical book in their hands. But for those who prefer paper, all kinds of print options exist for digital books, from an affordable bound version to only printing a chapter a time, he said. “There’s pros and cons. As far as I can see, from a college sense, it’s purely pro from the aspect of saving money, saving space, and saving time.”

Being married with children, Harris said money is a significant issue. Like many students, he said “any penny I can save I will.” As a math tutor, he meets students who can’t afford the expensive textbook who end up getting behind and come to him for help. He told a story about a student who is ineligible for financial aid and earns just enough to pay tuition. “When there’s not an online textbook he struggles, unless he’s taking a class with one of his buddies so he can borrow the book or make copies,” he said. The library has texts to check out, but students can’t leave with them. “Some people are only able to do homework here at campus. Those students end up spending a lot of time with me, catching up on understanding things they couldn’t practice, because they couldn’t do the homework problems at home. It’s sad but it’s a reality,” he said.

Assistant Professor of Mathematics Stuart Kramer, Ph.D. has used an open sourced text since 2015 that was published and distributed by the authors for his Math 111 College Algebra class; “I picked the Stitz and Zeager book that I like a lot because it follows along pretty much with the way I like to teach the course.” The UCC bookstore also carries the softcover bound version, a bargain for a big subject text at under $20. For Math 112 this term, Kramer chose an OER for the first time, a free pdf OpenStax book called Trigonometry that also comes in a reasonably priced hardcover version. Math Department Chair Dee Winn also successfully used the Trig book last term, Kramer said.

Kramer said he noticed OERs tend to be written at higher reading levels compared to commercial texts. “Community College is a little awkward. It’s sort of bridging between high school and college. We have to be accessible to a broader range of students. One of the skills students often lack is reading comprehension.” Most of the OERs tend to be written at the 10th to 12th grade reading level, while the commercial texts read at a ninth-grade level, he said. To explain math, it’s not necessary, and it can be a barrier to use a broad vocabulary and complex sentence structures. College instructors tend to write elevated prose, but in textbooks the language must be clear and simple. “It takes considerable editorial support to get a book written at that kind of level,” he said.

Associate Professor and Chair of the Business Department Toni Clough has been using no cost texts in her classes, including all six taught this term. She uses resources from Saylor Academy and puts various materials together to create her own digital texts.

Each professor said that the publishers see the competition and work harder to put more added value into their texts in the form of supplementary materials to help the student and the instructor—test banks, quizzes, PowerPoint presentations, study guides, and all kinds of links to online resources and videos. Publishers partner with web based companies that do testing, and they work hard to integrate texts with college learning management systems like Canvas. Publishers sell ebook versions (many unprintable) at a lower overall price but still make high profits minus all the production costs. More publishers now offer custom editions of books with select chapters, and comparatively less expensive editions in three ring binders, a sign that the influx of OERs into the market is finally forcing big business to compromise product pricing, if not profits, they said.

Publishers literally keep knocking on their doors, all professors said. Smith said he was using a Pearson text before adopting the freely sourced Social Problems book. “The rep came to my office. I had known her for years. I taught at three colleges where she was the rep. She asked, ‘Why have you dropped our book?’ I said, because your book is $150, it’s this thin, and it’s not that great.” He told her about the book he found online by the author she also knew. “She said, ‘Oh, I wish we could have gotten him as an author,’ I said he’s giving his books away now so you wouldn’t want him as an author.”

Instructors using freely accessed open information quietly challenge the established publishers who sell updated editions of textbooks driven by profit and the captive academic market. Bookstore manager Shoemaker acknowledged the impact of OERs but doesn’t think they are the answer to creating affordable texts. Others here have demonstrated the practicality of the free internet sources over multiple terms of use. It’s a complex story of evolution to be continued. Smith said that we are living in the greatest period of social transformation in the history of humanity, since the invention of the microchip. Student/tutor Harris said, “Whenever I’m sitting at home in the warm light of a lamp at night, I’m going to crack open a book.”