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In The Public Interest: The $2 Billion Opportunity for Affordable Textbooks and How Colleges Can Make the Most of It

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The Departments of Labor and Education recently announced a monumental $2 billion grant program to revitalize job training programs at 2-year colleges. This historic investment aims to harness innovation and technology to boost graduation rates so that more students can successfully enter the workforce.

The kicker: it could also make textbooks more affordable in the process.

Every college student knows that textbook costs are out of control. The average student spends $900 per year, and prices have been rising four times the rate of inflation. For community college students, textbooks are comparable to 72% of tuition according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) -- a significant chunk of their overall expenses. The root of the problem is that publishers have complete control over pricing: students need to buy their books to succeed in school, and industry mergers and buyouts have virtually eliminated competition. To get costs under control, we need an affordable alternative to challenge publishers' stranglehold on the market.

That's exactly what the $2 billion grant program could do.

Here's how: All materials produced under the grants -- including textbooks, curricula and software -- must be licensed to the public and made freely available online to read, download, customize, distribute and print. This provision is not only a big win for the principle of taxpayer access to taxpayer-funded resources, but it also ensures the grant program will feed the already growing supply of high-quality, remixable, sharable publicly licensed content known as "open" educational resources.

These "open" educational resources could result in tremendous savings for college students, especially those at 2-year colleges. A recent U.S. PIRG study found that "open" textbooks reduce costs 80% over traditional books, which translates to more than $10,000 in savings for the typical 100-student class. Also, open textbooks solve challenges associated with traditional e-books by giving students the flexibility to choose between print, digital and self-printed formats, all at a low cost.

And "open" educational resources are gaining momentum already. More than 1,000 college classes use open textbooks, and student PIRG activists have organized 2,500 professors to sign a declaration of support. With more instructors willing to adopt these open resources, sustainable models are beginning to evolve. For example, the startup company Flat World Knowledge publishes free, open textbooks while still making a profit! This $2 billion investment could supercharge innovation and help open resources gain even greater traction in the market to drive textbook costs down for good.

This is why the $2 billion grant is an extraordinary opportunity to improve - if not solve - a major financial challenge for millions of college students.

But, it's up to colleges to make it happen.

On behalf of students across the country, we call on colleges to use this grant program to make textbooks affordable in the process of improving workforce training. Proposals for the first $500 million in grants are due on April 21st and to potential applicants, we recommend the following three actions:

  1. Colleges should take a step back and look for other institutions with compatible workforce needs and goals. By collaborating -- or at least coordinating with others, colleges can cover more ground and ultimately get more out of the grants. Imagine having world-class open resources for the top 100, or even 1000 most common community college courses.
  2. Colleges should leverage the funds to reduce textbook costs for the maximum number of students. For example, prioritizing improvements to high-enrollment courses with expensive books could increase student success twofold: by creating more effective materials, and by relieving financial pressure. College Algebra would be a good place to start; it's part of many career-oriented programs, and the average textbook costs a whopping $162.47.
  3. Adoption should be a top priority. The educational and cost-saving benefits of open resources can only reach students if instructors adopt them. Colleges should make plans with other institutions and organizations to ensure their work is promoted elsewhere, and to do their part to promote other materials locally.

For more information on the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grants Program, see the Solicitation for Grant Applications.