Senators Dick Durbin, Al Franken and Angus King have introduced the Affordable College Textbook Act – which would increase the amount of open source, accessible materials to college students – into the Senate. In a press conference call, the three senators shared how the textbook epidemic has become increasingly dire, with costs rising over 88 percent in the last decade.
“I’ve had many students tell me they work 30, 40 hours week while they’re going to school … I’ve had kids tell me, it’s not that unusual, they sell their blood to pay the rent. And sometimes they make a choice between buying a textbook and not buying a textbook because of their rent,” Franken said on the call.
According to the Scholarly Publishing and Resources Coalition (SPARC), the average cost of materials and texts for college students has grown to more than $1,200 annually. The act would attempt to lower costs for college students by giving grants to professors to write Open Educational Resources (OERs), which are available for free to the public.
“Greater access to and widespread use of an open textbook saves students money and long term it puts pressure on traditional college textbook markets to come up with affordable alternatives,” Durbin said.
In addition to being open to the public, OERs can also be updated for accuracy without having to issue a completely new edition. According to Assistant Professor of Educational Studies Nate Williams, many textbook publishers capitalize on updating their content often so they can put out newer, more expensive editions.
“Most of the edits and changes are minimal. On very rare occasions there is a paradigm shift or … a new discovery has happened, but that’s rare. So on the one hand we’re trying to make materials accessible not only in language but also in price for students. But the trade-off is there might be more relevant content that we might be missing from recent editions,” Williams said.
Williams has seen a number of students at Knox struggling to buy the textbooks they need for his classes.
“It’s not sporadic. I would say at least two to four students a term, over the two courses that I teach, have expressed in some way shape or form having difficulty finding access to the text. Most of the reasons, if not all the reasons, are centered around finances,” he said.
Williams has also seen students avoid taking certain classes because of additional lab and material fees, sometimes switching out course requirements so they can finish their majors without taking those classes.
Franken, Durbin and King also spoke on the difficulty surrounding the monopolization of the textbook industry by companies like Pearson and McGraw Hill.
“Within my field particularly, Pearson is like the devil. They have monopolized so much of not just publishing but other testing materials, testing supplemental materials, the tests themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised at all because [Pearson and McGraw Hill] are the Wal-Marts of textbooks, that they control the market price as well,” Williams said.
The senators hope that by offering grants to professors to write their own texts, they will be presenting a win-win situation, since many professors desire publication. Williams is not so sure that the top scholars in the fields will want to participate, however.
“By no means do I mean to sound pessimistic, but … immediately when I think about the top scholars of my fields, I already know they have contracts with these companies. That isn’t to say that they couldn’t maneuver or find ways avenues to publish outside of their contracts or outside of their agreements that they already have with McGraw Hill or Pearson, but the likelihood of that I think is unlikely,” he said.
The senators, however, believe that the act will drastically alter the way that information is packaged and used by students in the future.
“It doesn’t prescribe a solution that will work in Minnesota or Maine or Illinois or California necessarily, but it will allow a kind of creativity across the country about how do we get the information into a format that students can use that will be cheaper,” King said.