Posted: October 18, 2016 -- letizia

Some things are scarier than the ghosts, ghouls and goblins of Halloween. For college students (and for many of their parents), the cost of textbooks and related course materials can make their hearts skip a beat more than the annual holiday’s worst horror movie.

WSU Libraries is sponsoring a display in Terrell Library in October highlighting the spooky reality of college textbook expenses and how to bring dead checking accounts back to life with open textbooks and other educational resources.

Called “Death of a Textbook: A Macabre Display in Four Acts,” the display kicks off events planned for International Open Access Week Oct. 24-30.

Runaway monopoly

Since 2006, the cost of a college textbook has increased by 73 percent, more than four times the rate of inflation, according to 2016 reports (“Covering the Cost” and “Access Denied”) from the nonprofit Student PIRGs. That’s because five major publishers control 80 percent of the textbook market and set the prices as well as options for textbook purchases.

In addition, about one-third of college courses require access codes—individual, single-use passwords that grant the purchaser access to online homework assignments or supplementary material—that further restrict student textbook access.

“Access codes lock 100 percent of students into buying a product and eliminate a student’s ability to opt out,” said librarians Erin Hvizdak and Gabriella Reznowski, who created the Terrell display. “Many instructors have attempted to ease the burden of textbook costs by making them freely available to check out from the library through course reserves. But requiring a bundled access code makes this textbook sharing impossible.

“It is an issue of economic security for students,” they said. “Publishers have them at their mercy.”

A hard choice

A 2012 survey conducted by the Florida Virtual Campus revealed that about 65 percent of the state’s college students did not purchase textbooks at some point due to cost. WSU students have made the same difficult choice.

Colleen McMahon, director of ASWSU University Affairs and a junior majoring in accounting, said she has spent more than $700 for one semester of course materials. For two classes, she decided not to buy books at all strictly because of cost.

“Textbooks, access codes and other software needed for classes have become unbearable for students, and most are dropping classes or just not buying the material needed,” McMahon said. “Not only do these students have to worry about how to pay for their education, but they also have to worry about how they will study for the test or write a paper when they don’t have a book.

“There are so many resources our university can utilize that would take the burden off of the students,” she said. “As a collective unit, we have to look for ways to ensure all students are getting the same education regardless of whether they can afford $1,200 of books for the year or not.”

Textbooks re-envisioned (and reanimated)

Textbooks have been given new life through their transition into open educational resources (OERs), Hvizdak and Reznowski said. Textbook authors can share their work with the educational community by using an open license so professors and instructors can offer their books in class.

Organizations such as OpenStax and Open Textbook Network (both of which WSU joined this year) offer textbooks online or in print at little to no cost for students, teachers and the public. OpenStax textbooks in particular are projected to save students $70 million in the 2016-17 academic year alone.

Hvizdak and Reznowski also point to 13 peer-reviewed studies of OER efficacy involving almost 120,000 students. Researchers found that 95 percent of students using open textbooks performed the same or better than students using commercial textbooks.

“Many WSU professors and instructors work hard to manage the cost of class resources for their students,” they said. “For those who want to incorporate OERs, there are many options. Most OERs can be tweaked to suit their needs, and the content they create can still be protected through licensing. In that sense, it is a win-win for both students and instructors.”

To learn more about open educational resources at WSU, visit https://teach.wsu.edu/oer/.

—By Nella Letizia