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.
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.