When we talk about the cost of course materials at Oregon’s universities, how much money are we really talking about? Open Oregon Educational Resources used a standard methodology to gather locally relevant cost data that could be compared across institutions. This data establishes a baseline for comparison with future findings.
Key research findings:
- The statewide average cost of course materials for the top three four-year degrees at each university is $3,551, or $19.32 per credit.
- The overall statewide average of the cost of course materials for general education requirements at each university is $1,274.91, or $18.83 per credit.
- The average lowest-cost general education pathway identified with the no-cost/low-cost schedule designation is $333.01, or $4.92 per credit.
The findings of this study show that statewide, average materials costs at Oregon’s universities are below the national benchmark published by the College Board. Redesigning courses around open educational resources and other low-cost options can offer students significant savings. Lower textbook costs enable students to redirect funds to help pay for additional courses or living expenses such as food, housing, transportation or childcare.
Prominently designating no-cost and low-cost courses in the schedule enables students to make informed choices as they plan their term. If every student who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2019 were able to pursue the lowest-cost general education pathway when meeting their degree requirements, the estimated savings would be over $17M. This result demonstrates that the no-cost/low-cost schedule designation is high-impact and worth prioritizing. Yet without department- and institution-wide commitments to low-cost and no-cost materials, students will have unpredictable experiences with the same curriculum. Read the full report.
In 2015, Open Oregon Educational Resources used a research method conceived by Quill West, Pierce College’s Open Education Project Manager, and refined by Nicole Allen, Director of Open Education at SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition, to gather baseline data on the cost of textbooks for transfer degrees at Oregon’s community colleges.
The 2015 blog post from the beginning of this project, titled Why do we need this research?, proposed that Oregon needs local data in order to understand the scope of the problem that our textbook affordability program has set out to solve. In particular, it would be useful to know whether the College Board’s national average recommendation for what students should budget for course materials was applicable in Oregon. The same reasoning applies to Oregon’s seven universities, and the present study establishes a baseline for future comparison.
The study in the colleges has now been conducted three times:
- What is the cost of course materials for a transfer degree at each community college in Oregon? (2015)
- Two years and a big difference: Transfer degree course materials costs are down at Oregon’s community colleges (2017)
- Four years and falling: Impact of statewide funding for textbook affordability (2019)
Repeating the same research method over time, it is possible not only to make a consistent cost comparison, but also to show an encouraging trend of falling course material costs in Oregon’s colleges, as shown in figure 1 below. The present study will enable us to track trends in Oregon’s universities in the future.
Other states and institutions share an interest in establishing local benchmarks for course materials costs:
- The 2017 slide deck, Establishing the Actual Costs of Textbooks: Data from Virginia’s Community Colleges, shows the results of adopting the SPARC methodology at the statewide level using a sample schedule based on common courses recommended to first-year students by academic advisors.
- The Penn State Berks Textbook Affordability Dashboard presents information on the cost of all required course materials at one university campus through interactive graphics (the process of creation is documented in Details of the Creation of the Penn State Berks Textbook Affordability Dashboard Project).
- A small liberal-arts college also assessed the course materials costs for every course offered at that institution, as described in the slide deck Assessing Textbook Costs at Randolph College.
- In 2019, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy published Open Educational Resources & The Cost of Required Course Materials in Four-Year Universities, estimating the cost of purchasing all materials required for degree completion based on degree pathways of recent graduates.
Acknowledgement: Campus store managers
This project would not have been possible without the assistance of all 7 of Oregon’s university bookstore managers. Each verified the data presented below to ensure the accuracy of the information collected for their institution. Store managers are essential campus community members who bring expertise in negotiating with publishers, on-demand printing, and compliance with federal reporting requirements in order to support students.
This research estimates course materials costs for the three highest-enrolled undergraduate degrees at each university. The course requirements for each of the degree programs are specified in the universities’ course catalogs. Because the top degrees vary greatly across the state – Oregon Tech, in particular, offers specialized programs – course materials costs are also estimated for the general education requirements at each university. General education requirements also vary greatly across the state, but it is possible to establish a cost per general education credit that can be compared.
While there are some specific courses required for each degree, there are many possible ways to meet the total degree and graduation requirements. Therefore, where there were multiple options to meet a requirement, the course with the highest enrollment at that university was selected to fulfill that requirement. Data on course enrollments and degree disciplines for each university was provided by the Office of Research and Data of the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission from the most recent year available (2017 for the present study). This research does not suggest a pathway that any individual student would take, but rather looks at the courses that students collectively take most often at each university. This is where cost reductions can have the greatest impact.
The next step was to visit each university bookstore’s website and look up the required course materials for each of the courses for the current term. If multiple sections of the course were being taught, the first one on the list was selected. This arbitrary choice accounts for the fact that students often are not able to choose their courses based on course materials cost because of competing priorities such as work schedules or childcare.
For each course, the most and least expensive options for the total cost of materials was recorded. If one book could be used for more than one course in a series, its cost was only counted once. If the course was not offered that term, or no adoption was reported to the bookstore, the store manager looked up prices for the most recent term that an adoption was reported for.
In 2015 Oregon passed HB 2871, which requires all public colleges and universities to designate no-cost and low-cost courses in the schedule. This policy assumes that students may make course selections based on the cost of materials. 5 out of the 7 universities had implemented the schedule designation by Fall 2019. This makes it possible to use the schedule to find the general education degree pathway with the lowest possible materials cost. Again, this is not a program that any individual student would pursue, but demonstrates the significant cost savings that are possible when students have the information and flexibility to choose the lowest-cost option.
The data supporting the conclusions presented here can be found in the 2019 Aggregate Statewide Data – Universities spreadsheet. Data for each university is available in the appendix (available in the full report), and the course/bookstore data for each university is available upon request.
According to the College Board’s Average estimated undergraduate budgets by sector, 2019-20, students at public four-year institutions should budget $1,240 per year for books and supplies. This estimate suggests that for a four-year degree, students would budget $4,960, or $27.56 per credit (for a 180-credit degree). Making a comparison between the results of the present study and College Board data is not apples-to-apples because the two figures are derived from different methods, but the national data provides a useful point of reference.
At every university in Oregon, the average cost of materials for the four-year degrees studied is less than the College Board estimate. The overall statewide average cost of course materials for the top three four-year degrees at each university is $3,551, or $19.32 per credit. The overall statewide average of the cost of course materials for general education requirements at each university is $1,274.91 for 68 credits, or $18.83 per credit.
Assuming maximum flexibility to select courses based on materials cost, the average lowest-cost general education pathway is $333.01, or $4.92 per credit. This very low number represents a 74% savings compared to the average cost when always choosing section 1. One university offered zero textbook cost courses that meet all general education requirements (again, not necessarily a pathway that any individual student would take). According to Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, 18,346 students completed bachelor’s degrees in 2018-19 (the most recent year available). If all of those graduates were able to pursue the lowest-cost general education pathway when meeting their degree requirements, the estimated savings would be $17,280,097.40.
Figure 2, below, shows the statewide average cost of materials per credit for 4-year degrees and general education requirements (averaging the high and low materials costs for the degree).
These findings can be directly compared to the results of the studies using the same research method to estimate the cost of course materials for transfer degrees in Oregon’s community colleges. The statewide average cost per credit for Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer (AAOT) degree requirements in Oregon’s community colleges in 2019 was $16.39, 13% lower than the statewide average cost per credit for general education requirements in Oregon’s universities. The statewide average cost per credit for the lowest-cost pathway through the AAOT degree requirements in Oregon’s community colleges in 2019 was $4.17, 15% lower than the lowest-cost statewide average for general education requirements in Oregon’s universities.
At both the colleges and the universities, without department- and institution-wide commitments to low-cost and no-cost materials, students will have unpredictable experiences with the same curriculum. Those with the most flexibility in their schedules will be able to select the sections designated as no-cost or low-cost, while those with the least flexibility may have to pay more for the same course. The zero textbook cost pathway that was identified cannot be guaranteed to be available to all students. At the moment, the lowest-cost pathway is a reminder of the impact of faculty choices and the importance of prominently designating courses in the class schedule to make savings information readily available to students. It has the potential to become a curriculum that can be marketed widely to students.
Many more students take core degree courses than earn a degree in any year. Figure 3, below, shows average materials costs and headcount enrollment in the 10 highest-enrolled courses at Oregon’s universities. These numbers show that immediate savings can be found by ensuring that courses in sequence, such as MTH 111 and MTH 112, use the same textbook, lowering the effective course materials cost of subsequent courses in the series to zero. The potential future savings in these 10 courses, as more faculty make the change to OER and lower-cost materials, is over $5 million.
|Course||2019 Average Cost||2019 Enrollment||Potential Savings|
Figure 3: Materials costs for highest-enrolled courses
Maximum and Minimum Cost Comparisons
Figure 4 considers in more detail the difference between the maximum and minimum materials costs for general education requirements. The orange bars are the maximum (retail) cost of materials, and the yellow bars are the minimum that a student might pay for materials at the bookstore through rentals, used materials, required only, etc. The green line shows the difference between the maximum and minimum costs.
This data shows the effort that bookstore managers are making to keep textbook prices down. Through negotiations with publishers as well as used book, digital, and rental options, they offer an average savings of nearly $700 on general education materials, representing 40% off retail prices. The difference between the maximum and minimum lowest-cost general education pathway is just $256.81. For Oregon students every dollar counts, yet these figures demonstrate that as overall prices come down, traditional savings tactics may become less relevant.
Hours at Minimum Wage Comparisons
It is illustrative to calculate the number of hours it would take at minimum wage to pay for average materials costs at each university. This analysis contextualizes the competing demands on students’ time. Note that Oregon has different minimum wage rates for the Portland Metro area and nonurban counties (more information on this at Oregon Minimum Wage Rate Summary).
Figure 5, below, shows the number of hours it would take at the respective minimum wage to earn the average cost of materials for general education requirements (averaging the high and low materials costs). The figure shows that the average lowest-cost general education pathway represents not just financial savings, but tremendous time savings as well.
Course Materials to Tuition Cost Comparisons
Last, it is possible to compare the cost of course materials with the cost of tuition. Because university tuition is high compared to cost per credit in Oregon’s community colleges, course materials costs represent a smaller proportion of the total cost of a degree at a university.
The data shows, nonetheless, that rising tuition costs can be offset by course materials savings. This finding suggests that tuition increases may be more palatable for students if administrators put real support behind textbook affordability initiatives to find the savings elsewhere. It also may be possible to complete a degree more quickly if funds for education can be spent on tuition rather than course materials.
Figure 6, below, shows average materials cost for general education requirements as a percentage of average in-state tuition per credit hour.
As a result of this research, we know that the cost of course materials at Oregon universities is lower than the College Board’s national figure. The present study estimates that course materials costs at Oregon’s universities are higher than at Oregon’s community colleges, but represent a lower percentage of the cost of attendance because of higher tuition rates.
Where no-cost and low-cost course materials information is available in the course schedule, the lowest-cost degree pathway offers a huge potential savings of 74% over the average materials cost. This result demonstrates that the no-cost/low-cost schedule designation is high-impact and worth prioritizing. Yet without department- and institution-wide commitments to low-cost and no-cost materials, students will have unpredictable experiences with the same curriculum.
The present study represents a benchmark to measure future progress against, as has been possible to do for the community colleges. There is great work going on right now in Oregon’s universities. More and more faculty are taking the time to thoughtfully redesign their courses around lower-cost materials, with and without the help of grant funding and other incentives. These findings help to quantify just how much students stand to benefit from these efforts.