Students Vote with their Feet for Lower-Cost Courses

By | March 4, 2024

Does marking courses in the schedule with a no-cost/low-cost designation have an impact on student enrollment? This is the real-world question that a new research article answers for the first time. Our analysis shows that students are voting with their feet to find courses with lower-cost materials.

Open Oregon Educational Resources gathered a group of volunteers that planned a research project to cross-reference designated courses with student enrollment data. After the planning phase, the data collection, analysis, and writeup were completed by Shauna McNulty, Science Faculty at Umpqua Community College; Amy Hofer, Statewide Open Education Program Director at Open Oregon Educational Resources; and Jennifer Lantrip, Health Sciences Student Success Librarian at Pacific University.

We gave three presentations at the Open Education Conference about our research:

Our article is now peer-reviewed and published, and is available in two places:

Why do we need this information?

Oregon’s textbook affordability policies rest on the premise that students benefit from greater price transparency so that they can plan their budgets. Students shouldn’t be surprised by textbook costs on the first day of class. This kind of unpredictability can lead to students dropping a course, changing majors, delaying their academic goals, or even leaving college (Small Dollar Amounts Are Significant).

Advocates for affordable textbooks and open education know that the schedule designation represents an important proof of concept for how the course schedule can be used to communicate with students about the cost of attendance. Here are a few vivid examples of its impact:

However, two different evaluations of how the schedule designation was implemented in Oregon by different student capstone groups from the University of Oregon found in both 2018 and in 2023 that student awareness of the schedule designation is stubbornly low (Evaluating Oregon’s Open Educational Resources Designation Requirement and Evaluating Oregon’s Textbook Affordability Policies).

A better understanding of whether student enrollment behavior is affected by the no- and low-cost schedule designation can help make the case for designations at institutions that do not already use them. It can also suggest more effective messaging to students so that they are able to act on information available to them through the course schedule.

What can we do with this information?

Different groups have valid questions and concerns about how the schedule designation impacts their work. The table below outlines our recommendations to make the schedule designation more workable from all perspectives.

Stakeholder group and potential concern Our recommendations
Faculty want to know whether their course material choice may have an impact on enrollment. If their course does not make or is under-enrolled, they see a financial impact.
  • Adopt department-wide commitments to use no- and low-cost course materials.
  • Encourage part-time instructors to participate in funding opportunities for course redesign when offered.
  • Assign part-time instructors to sections that are likely to fill for other reasons based on student information system enrollment data (e.g. weekday sections, morning sections, and/or online sections).
Bookstore managers, registrars, schedulers, and other staff invest considerable effort to implement the no- and low-cost schedule designation. People in these back-end roles want to know that their work has an impact that benefits students.
  • Improve the timeliness and accuracy of adoption reporting.
  • Improve the usability of the no- and low-cost designation in course scheduling software.
  • Market the no- and low-cost designation so that more students know how to use it.
  • Publicly recognize the work of the people who implement it.
The Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC) and legislature want to know the impact of HB 2871 (Oregon’s statewide policy requiring the no-cost/low-cost schedule designation).
  • Align course marking efforts with other HECC initiatives.
  • Earmark funding for course marking implementation and affordability efforts.
  • Conduct analysis of which course marking implementations are working well and make recommendations on best practices.
  • Celebrate success through widespread public recognition of implementation and student savings.

Advancing statewide equity goals

Textbook costs do not affect all students the same way. We found many studies demonstrating that historically underserved students are disproportionately harmed by textbook costs. Our research shows how implementing a schedule designation can lead to what Sarah Lambert calls redistributive justice because it allocates resources to promote the success of non-privileged learners (read Lambert’s full article at Changing our (Dis)Course: A Distinctive Social Justice Aligned Definition of Open Education).

Oregon’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Action Plan asserts that “As Oregon’s demographics shift over time, governmental policies and practices have both a historic and current role in alleviating racial and other inequities.” The Oregon HECC produced an Equity Lens aligned with statewide goals, declaring that “We believe that our community colleges, university, and workforce training systems have a critical role in serving our communities of color, learners experiencing poverty, and other underserved populations.” Every one of Oregon’s public community colleges and universities has institutional statements that include both access and equity.

Our findings show that the schedule designation advances statewide equity goals. We found evidence that historically underserved student groups are finding the no- and low-cost designated courses, and that the designation is potentially helping students in these groups get through college with an overall lower cost of attendance.

The results of this study are significant for everyone in a position to promote the designation to students, mitigate its impact on precarious faculty, and celebrate the success of an effective statewide policy.