by Dr. Barbara Illowsky
In fall 2017, California officially joined the College Promise campaign when Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill waiving first year tuition for all new, CA resident students who enroll full-time at one of the 114 California Community Colleges (CCC). Even though the CCC full-time tuition is already one of the lowest in the country at approximately $1100 per year (2), this tuition waiver is a great start to assist students in attending college and to support them in going full-time. However, it’s important to note that, especially in CA, community college tuition is just a small fraction of overall expenses for students.
According to a February 2018 report by The Institute for College Access & Success, “Existing state aid programs are not designed to sufficiently address non-tuition costs of college, including housing, food, textbooks, and transportation, particularly in high-cost areas of the state.”  In fact, the CA Student Aid Commission estimates “students incur over $19,000 in non-tuition college costs per year for students living independently off campus (which the majority do)” . Textbooks and supplies account, on average, for $1420 per year at public community colleges in the U.S. , more than CCC tuition.
Part of the College Promise is to assist students in finishing programs they start. For many students, the cost of textbooks delays or eliminates students’ completion. This is especially true for community college students who I’ve taught and championed for almost 30 years. In 2014, StudentPIRG released a report of over 2000 U.S. higher ed students in which almost two-thirds of them claimed that they did not buy at least one required textbook because of the cost . Of those students, 94% were worried about the lack of the textbook affecting their grades. In addition, almost half of the students agreed that “the cost of textbooks impacted how many/which classes they took each semester.”
How can faculty, administrators and foundations support these students? Specifically, what can I do that supports the College Promise goals? For me, the cost of textbooks has become a social justice issue, one that I can actually do something about. I strongly believe that replacing expensive textbooks with OER is an equity and social justice issue. All students need free access to course materials on Day 1 of class, not when they can afford to purchase their textbooks.
In 2006, my co-author and colleague, Susan Dean, decided our self-published “Collaborative Statistics” textbook would become one of the first complete Open Education Resource (OER) textbooks, one that is Creative Commons Attribution licensed, meaning that it is free and adaptable for anyone to use, so long as attribution is given In statistics and many college courses, if a student cannot purchase the textbook until the second or third week of the term, that student is at a severe disadvantage compared to student who start the term fully resourced. Rice University’s Connexions converted our hard copy text into an accessible online text, thanks to generous grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Maxfield Foundation. The textbook and publishing process went on to become the prototype for OpenStax textbooks. Just this one open textbook, now renamed “Introductory Statistics,” has saved students at our college over $3,000,000 in textbook costs over the past ten years. That’s multiples more than the foundations invested in it as well as more than we could ever provide for in textbook scholarships. Overall, OpenStax and other open textbooks have saved students hundreds of millions of dollars. Community colleges in CA and across the nation are developing zero-textbook cost degrees with the assistance of the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources and generous foundations.
Free textbooks and free tuition –that’s how College Promise and using OER work together to increase student completion, close the achievement gap, serve our student, and build our next generation of leaders!
1. UNPACKING CALIFORNIA COLLEGE AFFORDABILITY: Experts Weigh in on Strengths, Challenges, and Implications, February 2018, p.5, https://ticas.org/sites/default/files/pub_files/ticas_report_ca_affordability_final.pdf
2. The College Board. (2017). Trends in College Pricing 2017. https://trends.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/2017-trends-in-college-pricing_1.pdf
3. The Institute for College Access & Success. (2017). What College Costs for Low-Income Californians. https://ticas.org/sites/default/files/pub_files/what_college_costs_for_low-income_ californians.pdf
4. Fixing the Broken Textbook Market: How students respond to high textbook costs and demand alternatives (January 2014). Pp. 4-5. Ethan Senack, The Student PIRGs. http://www.studentpirgs.org/textbooks & https://uspirg.org/reports/usp/fixing-broken-textbook-market
5. College Board, Annual Survey of Colleges; NCES, IPEDS Fall 2015 Enrollment data.
Dr. Barbara Illowsky is one of the early pioneers in the OER community, having co-authored “Collaborative Statistics” (later updated to become OpenStax’ “Introductory Statistics”) published by Connexions and as Project Director of CCCOER. She continues to write, publish and advocate for OER adoption and policy. The Open Education Consortium awarded Barbara the 2013 Educator ACE Award where she now serves on the board of directors. Barbara serves in the Foothill-De Anza CCD.