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College textbooks too expensive? Here's a cheaper option

By Bill Gephardt | Posted - Jun. 25, 2014 at 9:30 a.m.


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SALT LAKE CITY — Some college students are willing to gamble with their grades because they don't want to deal with the skyrocketing costs of textbooks.

They simply don't buy required books because they're too expensive, like an average of $1,200 a year. Over four years of college, that's nearly $5,000. So now, colleges have found a cheaper alternative: free digital textbooks.

Some required textbooks carry a $200 price tag. Government numbers show textbook prices are 812 percent higher than they were in the late 1970s, outpacing inflation for most consumer goods by more than three times.

“The market is broken,” said David Wiley, a former Brigham Young University instructor and chief academic officer of Lumen Learning. “The textbook market is broken.”

He said textbook prices have gotten out of control.

“There is literally no market pressure on prices because students who are paying don’t get to choose. The faculty member makes the choice, and the faculty member doesn’t pay. There’s no particular reason for the faculty member to be price conscious,” he said.

Wiley said that helps drive up textbook prices. Now, as co-founder of Lumen Learning, Wiley is helping colleges embrace the new strategy that could drop those prices to zero by using open-source textbooks. These books are written by faculty and reviewed by their peers just like traditional textbooks. Here's the difference: They're published without copyright protection, so they're free to download and affordable to print.

“There’s no reason textbooks have to cost $150, $200,” said Jason Pickavance, director of educational initiatives at Salt Lake Community College.


“There’s no reason textbooks have to cost $150, $200.” - Jason Pickavance

Pickavance is rallying instructors there to adopt open- source materials for general education courses. He said while traditional publishers will always have a role, he doesn't want a system in which textbook prices are kept high by continually revised editions.

“If they come to me and say, ‘I have a fifth edition of Introduction to Algebra with slightly different pagination and new graphics that is essentially the same as the first edition 10 years ago but it costs four times as much,’ I’m not interested,” he said.

Brenda Gardner is studying the impact of open-source materials for SLCC's math department.

“I had a student come up to me and say, ‘I can’t afford the textbook. I can’t afford the online version,’ ” she said. “They’re borrowing their friends’ textbooks and they’re taking pictures of the pages. They’re buying old versions of the textbook. They’re doing everything they can do to get by.”

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She's found a 28 percent higher student retention rate compared to courses using traditional textbooks.

Geography professor Adam Dastrup said he's written four open-source textbooks. More are on the way. Dastrup said the beauty is, he's no longer bound by a dated textbook. He now continually revises his open-source books as world events unfold.

“It’s become more dynamic and exciting, and it’s given me more passion to teach it now,” he said.

Total textbook costs for the students enrolled in one Virginia school's two-year-program used to be about $3,000. But for students who started last fall, Wiley said the textbook price has come to zero.

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