When you do not have a place to live and you are struggling to eat, going to college is a formidable challenge. Nearly 40% of college students have reported having food insecurity, and at any moment 1 in every 5 community college students are homeless. Then add in tuition and whatever-the-market-will-bear textbook pricing and graduating is a near impossibility.
That is not Gov. Gavin Newsom’s nor the Legislature’s ‘California dream’ where each person is given the opportunity to succeed to the full measure of their ability.
While we may not be able to control the cost of gas, rent, and food, we can make a difference in how much students pay for textbooks. College textbook prices have risen more than the average rate of inflation and have increased by 178% since 2000. Approaches such as “bundling” that require students to purchase new editions of textbooks in order to obtain access codes for digital resources, market consolidation that removes competition as a means of controlling prices, and a lack of price transparency in terms of which option is truly the least expensive have all contributed to this increase.
It’s not surprising then that 35% of California college students report that they did not have enough money to pay for textbooks and supplies, creating overwhelming barriers for these students to learn and graduate.
Recognizing this problem, California took action. In 2021, Gov. Newsom and the Legislature appropriated $115 million for a statewide Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) degree program that would increase the availability of pathways across the California Community College system. These pathways would allow students to earn a degree or certification without spending a dime on textbooks.
With this funding, the governor made a bold commitment to address “the racket that is textbooks in this country.” He went on to say that in California, “we have an obligation to disrupt that entire system nationwide.”
We agree that it is time to disrupt the existing unaffordable system with a sustainable and statewide implementation of the program that will create a future where students and educators have access to high-quality, accessible, customizable, and free course materials through the use of Open Educational Resources, or OER. Expanding open educational resources will relieve students of the burden of high-cost course materials and improve educational outcomes. Furthermore, the legislation specifically prioritizes the use of open educational resources to create zero textbook cost degrees.
With an open resources-centric program, students have higher success rates. According to a 2018 study, the number of A and A-minus grades college students earned increased by 5.50% and 7.73% respectively when students had access to free openly licensed materials, while the number of students who withdrew or earned D or F grades dropped by 2.68%. In addition, students from marginalized backgrounds experienced greater benefits from courses using open educational resources. The use of these resources not only provides students with free textbooks, but it also facilitates the integration of culturally responsive pedagogical approaches.
Through open educational resources, educators have the opportunity to rethink, revise and update their courses, bringing the specific needs of students into the process. Students never lose access to their materials, unlike the time-limited access to digital resources provided to students by commercial publishers. They have unlimited access and can refer back to their course materials without any extra cost.
But there is a real and present danger to California developing a comprehensive library of needed open educational resources textbooks and zero textbook cost degrees. It is the attempt by corporate interests to subvert those funds into a pay-as-you-go, temporary-access content system in a for-profit model through paying for commercial digital access codes rather than long-term solutions — the very thing that this visionary investment was intended to disrupt.
However, we are encouraged by recent announcements that the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office plans to initiate the distribution of the Zero Textbook Cost Program funds with planning grants to allow campuses to plot a course to bring the cost of textbooks to zero for some degrees and then apply for larger grants to see that plan to fruition.
Systemwide involvement is necessary to achieve the legislation’s goal of ensuring “the development and implementation of the greatest number of degrees for the benefit of the greatest number of students” (California Education Code 78052 (c)).
Ideally, system-level support structures will be established, and future funding will foster robust development and adoption of free resources and zero-textbook courses at all the colleges. Disbursed strategically, this funding can drive significant and sustained progress towards a more equitable education system by ensuring that all colleges benefit.
A critical element is to adopt a culture of transparency. The collection of data is key to improving transparency and accountability, but it will also be a valuable resource for other states as California can demonstrate how we can make college more affordable and accessible.
We encourage the California Community Colleges board of governors to expedite the implementation of the ZTC program with a thoughtful and effective distribution of the $115 million that will remove cost barriers and create a sustainable program that benefits all students.
Gary K. Michelson, M.D., is founder and co-chair of the Michelson 20MM Foundation and the Michelson Center for Public Policy, which supports innovative uses of technology to provide more accessible and affordable high-quality educational opportunities.
Michelle Pilati is professor of psychology at Rio Hondo College in Whittier and faculty coordinator of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges Open Educational Resources Initiative.
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