What is the cost of course materials at each community college in Oregon?

By | August 11, 2015

Part 1 of 2: Why do we need this research?

The often-cited figure for a year’s worth of books and supplies is approximately $1200, a number that is reported annually by The College Board. Yet many variables call this estimate into question: students shop around for the cheapest alternative or skip buying expensive books altogether; different data sources might lead to different estimates; textbooks purchased with loan dollars will cost more than their sticker price after interest is calculated; and so on. When we talk about the cost of textbooks at Oregon’s community colleges, how much money are we really talking about?

Quill West, Open Education Project Manager at Pierce College, decided that the most reliable and persuasive data for her institution would also be the most local. With the help of an academic adviser, she drew up a sample schedule for an average student at her college and then “went shopping” at the bookstore to find out what it would really cost to buy books and supplies for an entire two-year degree program. She collected both a high number (retail cost of all the books) and a low number (used and rental prices that a savvy student would shop around for).

West’s research idea was amplified during a conference call led by Nicole Allen, Director of Open Education at SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition. Members of the LibOER group (academic and research librarians interested in open educational resources) volunteered to use a standard methodology to conduct similar research at their own institutions in order to produce locally relevant cost data that could also be easily compared across institutions.

Open Oregon will conduct this research for all 17 of Oregon’s community colleges, leveraging publicly available data. Finding out the likely cost of course materials for each college helps establish a baseline that we can measure future progress against. It also provides a compelling talking point for when we reconvene for the new school year this fall and pick up our conversations about reducing student costs.

As I started working on this research project, I was initially surprised by the high dollar amounts I found on a test run with Allen’s methodology (which I will describe in Part 2). In my role as statewide coordinator I know very well that there are OER heroes on every Oregon community college campus making a tremendous effort to reduce textbook costs on behalf of students. Why doesn’t the cost of a degree reflect this work?

There are probably many answers to this question, but one possible explanation has to do with the economics of the textbook publishing industry. Textbook prices rise about 6% per year, according to the analysis How Much Do College Students Actually Pay For Textbooks?. OER champions are therefore fighting a rising tide. In fact, a materials cost increase, as long as it stays under 6%, represents something of a win for students in this context. Achieving a cost reduction of 6% means that expectations for student spending would stay the same, year over year. To see a real decrease, campuses would need to aim for a minimum of 7% cost reduction per year, say market price analysts and financial experts in Sweden.

One casualty of this model is the campus bookstore: high textbook prices drive students away from the bookstore as they shop online, rent, or skip buying the textbook altogether (for more on this, see About the Diverging Textbook Prices and Student Expenditures). David Wiley has published a helpful analysis On OER and College Bookstores that shows how open materials can help college bookstores reclaim some of that textbook revenue. Faculty, for their part, can make sure to let the bookstore know well in advance if they plan to switch to OER so that the old book doesn’t get ordered – an entirely preventable mishap that really does hurt the bookstore’s bottom line.

The hypothesis underlying this research is that we can do more to help make college materials affordable for students, but we need to know the real amount that we are working to reduce. Is it very large, requiring a concerted and systematic shift? Is it not quite as bad as we thought, with major change within reach? I look forward to providing answers to these questions by the end of the summer.


8 thoughts on “What is the cost of course materials at each community college in Oregon?

  1. Donna Reed

    Thanks for doing this Amy. It sounds like a daunting task. Please let the librarian community know if you need any help or contact information.

    1. openoregon Post author

      Thanks Donna, we’re lucky to have such a great community of librarians in Oregon! Amy

  2. Richard Hershman

    Amy, while I am really pleased to see you embark on this project at looking at actual course material costs and spending, versus financial aid offices’ freshmen cost of attendance estimates for books and supplies category (books, supplies, software, hardware, equipment, and lab and course fees) I have a question and a few comments:

    1.) Why are you not working with the Oregon campus bookstores on this project? They know the data and the pricing and the trends and the options. They have data on every required and recommended textbook adopted, not cherry picking courses and sections. If you need contacts, I have them for the community colleges in the state. Portland Community College is already doing this type of analysis. They are supportive of OER. It would be a huge mistake not to engage with them and have real hard data and understand everything institutions are already doing to make course materials more affordable. They have been working on this longer than anyone in the state of Oregon. Some of the best independent (institutionally owned and operated or student coop’s) campus stores in the nation are in Oregon.

    2.) Your statement “One casualty of this model is the campus bookstore” shows a lack of understanding of what the mission of the campus bookstore is and what they are doing. They are not casualties. College stores in Oregon are dynamic entities who have been successfully swimming upstream, to borrow your analogy, finding ways to lower prices and present low cost options for faculty and students, sourcing and negotiating with publishers and OER sources to get the lowest possible price while fitting the requirements of the faculty, engaging with faculty over adoptions to seek out lower cost alternatives, AND even directing students to online vendors and OER sources. All at the same time not getting any subsidies by the state or taking any tuition dollars to support their operations. All Oregon stores have implemented textbook rental programs -same or lower pricing than those found online -as many partnered with the online vendors or implemented their own hybrid programs. Many have partnered with libraries as well so the students are not paying twice if available at the library. More than 10 of Oregon’s campus bookstores have implemented price comparison and online marketplace shopping including about five of the community colleges.

    3.) The methodology SPARC has put out has significant limitations by looking at a limited number of courses and sections. The University of North Carolina state system has developed and utilizes a methodology that presents more accurate and comprehensive data on cost trends. The methodology was developed by a mathematician at UNC Chapel Hill at the direction of Erskine Bowles who was chancellor at the state system at that time who mandated such analysis.

    4.) The economics of the textbook prices discussion above lacks an understanding of what the Bureau of Labor Statistics is tracking in the Consumer Price Index, which I have been following and studying for 12 years now. The Producer Price Index consistently shows higher inflation than the CPI by the way -new retail prices have always trailed as retail margins have been decreasing. But the problem is its only tracking primarily a limited number of select titles print new bundled “textbook” packages. It doesn’t track or factor in digital, rental, used, buyback. A huge limitation is the textbook index doesn’t factor in non-textbook course materials like trade books, which are widely adopted in higher education courses, but are tracked in a different price index -which shows much lower inflation and tend to be cheaper than those materials designated as “textbooks.” It doesn’t include OER -as far as I know. The CPI and PPI tell us some things -like it reflects the twice a year schedule of when prices increases occur, however in an age of significant discounting where the new print package list price is not the norm and BLS has failed to update their design like they have in other indices, it tells us less and less on what really is going on.

    Again I applaud your efforts to focus on developing a net cost course material estimate for Oregon community colleges -something nationally college stores have been calling for, but please do it the right way and engage the folks in the Oregon community colleges who have the data and understand it. I hope you will engage with them and work with them on this project.


    1. openoregon Post author

      Richard, thank you for sharing your thoughts! I agree with you – the community college bookstore managers that I have spoken with are passionate about lowering costs for students and are wonderful allies that I look forward to working with on this issue. Best, Amy

  3. Pingback: What is the cost of course materials for a transfer degree at each community college in Oregon? | openoregon.org

  4. Pingback: Two years and a big difference: Transfer degree course materials costs are down at Oregon’s community colleges – openoregon.org

  5. Pingback: Four years and falling: Impact of statewide funding for textbook affordability – openoregon.org

  6. Pingback: What is the cost of course materials for a four-year degree at each university in Oregon? – openoregon.org

Comments are closed.