09/30/2010 02:59 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

In The Public Interest : Open Textbooks and the Tech-Friendly Generation

This September I entered my first year at the University of Montana, Missoula. Along with all the typical freshman year excitement of orientation and making new friends, I planned my schedule for the semester and went to buy my first college textbooks. I spent a whopping $650 on textbooks for just this semester--not unheard of for a science major. I thought I might have been an extreme case, so I was shocked to learn that in 2003-4 the average college student spent $900 on textbooks .

It was then that I decided to take on the Student PIRGs' textbooks campaign because I felt that if there was a possibility that I could make a difference for students here in Missoula, I should try.

Textbooks are expensive, especially considering the amount of debt most students rack up by the time they graduate. I've already started looking into taking out student loans in order to pay for the rest of my college career, and I know I'm not the only one. Having worked with MontPIRG this summer, I was excited to become the campaign coordinator working to make textbooks more affordable at my university.

It's a great time to be working on Textbooks. Recently, we've seen progress in textbook affordability, and on July 1st, when regulations passed in Congress in 2008 kicked-in requiring publishers to disclose pricing information to professors and offer all textbooks unbundled. However, in our high-tech society, there is much more to do in the realm of textbook affordability to ensure that high textbook prices are not the tipping point between affording a degree and dropping out.

Just today, the StudentPIRGs released a report called A Cover to Cover Solution: How Open Textbooks are the Path to Textbook Affordability which shows a much more affordable way for students to use textbooks and buy other optional add-ons that have revolutionized the industry. The report shows that by using open textbooks, the average student could save 80% in textbook costs. One pioneer in the industry is Flat World Knowledge, a small company that has developed a sustainable model for free online open textbooks, which have triggered positive student responses and address a variety of student preferences.

You might think that some students might not be interested in open textbooks because it can be hard staring at a computer screen for hours at a time in order to finish an assignment. But here is the beauty of open textbooks: students can use them differently according to personal preferences. Open textbooks offer inexpensive black and white print editions for those students who love to highlight and mark-up their readings, to interactive CDs and workbooks for those who like to practice their newly learned skills, and of course the digital versions for the high-tech or cash-strapped folks who don't mind being glued to their computer screens.

By reinventing the textbooks economy online, prices will only get lower as companies compete to satisfy students. More and more options are becoming available, from extra packages and color-printing to professors having the ability to customize the materials their students download. As open textbooks become more popular, their subject range, variety, and quantity of authors will increase tenfold.

No one wants to spend hundreds of dollars on textbooks when we're already worried about paying for everything else college-related. Making textbooks more affordable is doable and necessary, and I'm coordinating this campaign at my university because we can make it happen. Faculty across the U.S. should consider open textbooks in order to help save their students from breaking the bank, and government programs should prioritize open textbooks to keep students from graduating beneath a suffocating pile of debt.