Dear Professors: Choose Open Textbooks, Please

I love getting new books. New textbooks, though? Those are another story. And it’s not just because I don’t find them as interesting as the books I might read for pleasure; it’s because textbooks are, for the most part, outrageously priced.


The College Board suggests that college students budget about $1,200 a year just for required texts. For some students at community colleges, that can amount to up to 40 percent of their tuition—just on books! Bigger textbooks, especially those for business and mathematics courses, can go for up to $300 brand new, and renting them often isn’t much cheaper.


I, like many of my peers, have gotten pretty adept at shopping around to find the best deals on my textbooks, but sometimes even those aren’t enough. Some students just can’t afford the expensive books—and who can blame them? According to the Government Accountability Office, the cost of textbooks rose at three times the rate of inflation between 2002 and 2013: a whopping 82 percent.


In some cases, professors are assigning grossly overpriced textbooks and are only using one or two chapters from them, meaning students end up paying hundreds of dollars for twenty or so pages of content. Even choosing to go the ebook route usually only saves students a small percentage of the overall cost, and key codes to online portals (which some professors require to do the homework) can really break the bank.


Meanwhile, major textbook publishers are regularly jacking up their already-high prices by releasing new editions of books every three or four years, even when they don’t really need to. Sure, you can buy an older edition of a book, but often the publishers will have changed just enough (a few practice questions here and some page numbers there) to make it impossible for students to substitute old books for new ones.


When you take all of this into account, it comes as no surprise that many students are deciding not to buy certain required texts. The problem is that saving some cash (or some student loan debt) often comes at the expense of the student’s education. Not having the proper materials can severely impede a student’s learning, and can also effect their grade.


As the Student Public Interest Research Groups puts it, “Not only are students choosing not to purchase the materials they are assigned by their professor, but they are knowingly accepting the risk of a lower grade to avoid paying for the textbook.” Not cool.


Aren’t our students already paying enough just to handle the rising cost of higher education tuition? It doesn’t make sense to force them to purchase ridiculously expensive textbooks on top of that.


And that’s where open textbooks come in. Basically, an open textbook has an open copyright license, meaning it can be used and distributed online for free. You can even usually get a print version for somewhere between $20 and $40. Sounds much more reasonable than $300.


Open textbooks aren’t any less accurate than those going for big bucks from the publisher either. They’re typically written by capable faculty and are peer-reviewed to ensure quality. You can find open textbooks online in places like the Open Textbook Library, where they operate under the belief that every student should be able to afford access to the materials they need.


Some professors even write their own textbooks, tailored specifically to the course they’re teaching. Several Champlain College professors are already doing this, providing their students with copies and/or directing them to order the books online, where they typically pay under $20 to get a copy of the book they need. (Trust me, their students love them for this.)


Rising textbook prices are a problem, and open source textbook publishing just might be one of the solutions. Every student should have access to knowledge and to the materials they need to succeed. When professors choose to assign open textbooks, they’re not just saving their students a lot of money. They’re also saving them the time, worry, and hassle that comes with searching for an affordable version of an expensive book. Open textbooks might even allow students to take courses they otherwise might not have taken, simply because they couldn’t afford the required material before.


So professors, please, if you’re not already, look into using some open textbooks! Your students will thank you.