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Students press for access to more open ed resources to keep down cost of textbooks

by caprecord

On a day deemed “textbook day,” lawmakers considered four new bills that aim to keep down the cost of college textbooks at a hearing of the House Committee on Higher Education last week.

Some changes would be minor — changing course descriptions to include the cost of materials — while others use grants or tax incentives to encourage the use of more open educational resources on college campuses. Open educational resources are those that can downloaded by anyone and used for free — a PDF of a textbook or assignment, for example.

Supporters of the effort say the bills are necessary because students are paying around $825 a year for textbooks, according to the Washington Financial Aid Association. Some studies put that number even higher, at $1,200 a year.

Here’s a look at the bills and the testimony they received:

House Bill 2686 sponsored by Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington:

  • Encourages community and technical colleges to develop degrees or certificates that only use open educational materials. This effort would be funded by grants through the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.
  • Expands and promote the Open Course Library at community colleges through grants from the State Board. Materials at the library are free or can be paired with low-cost textbooks under $30.
  • Requires community and technical colleges to revise their catalogs by fall of 2016 to show which courses use open educational materials.
  • Promotes access to open educational resources at four-year institutions through grants from the Student Achievement Council.

Melissa Gombosky with the Association of American Publishers said she was concerned about the focus of this bill as well as the others dealing with open educational resources. She said the effort would “shortchange” students by focusing on cost, not quality.

“We know that just because something is free it might not necessarily be better, and in some cases it certainly could be worse,” she said. “Our companies work hard to address the issue of quality and affordability. They compete against one and other in a very robust marketplace.”

She said textbook publishers already offer cheaper alternatives to traditional books – including digital and online options and student discount programs.

That point was later refuted by Anna Nepomuceno, the legislative liaison for Associated Students at UW Tacoma. She said that studies show a majority of professors either saw no difference in quality of the open resources or, in fact, preferred them.

House Bill 2680 sponsored by  Rep. Melanie Stambaugh, R-Puyallup:

  • Awards up to 100 grants per year to faculty members to create or adopt free educational tools for students at four-year universities. The grants fund the creation of Open Educational Resources so students won’t have to pay for their textbooks or other class materials.

Students wait to testify at the hearing.

Tacoma Community College student My’kyeke Cheatham testified in favor of the bill. He said he pays for his own tuition and materials, but dropped a course recently where cost of materials would have reached $400 to $500.

Nepomuceno said this was the bill her peers were most passionate about. She said community colleges already have open educational resources programs, and it’s time for four-year colleges to have one as well.

“We pay three times the tuition rates and right now there are more low-income students going to four-year institutions,” she said.

House Bill 2780 sponsored by Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor:

  • Creates tax incentives for any business that creates open source, free-to-use instructional materials for colleges. Companies could claim up to $35,000 per year in tax credits, with a total state cap of $1.5 million per year.
  • To qualify for the tax credit, the materials must be adopted as the primary resource for a course. They must also replace materials students would have had to purchase otherwise.

Rep. Young said many old materials could be easily open-sourced and turned into free teaching tools that could save students money.

“If you have a broader-based class that’s got $200 worth of textbook fees and you’ve got a thousand kids that go through it in a year, you’re talking almost a quarter million bucks,” he said. “Relative to the one-time tax incentive, which in this case would be $35,000, that’s a net of $165,000 towards schools.”

House Bill 2796 sponsored by Rep. Luanne Van Werven, R-Lynden:

  • Requires course descriptions to include the cost of required materials for the course – including textbooks. It would only apply to community colleges and technical colleges.

“This allows students to make the decision at the time when they have the opportunity to change their course,” Van Werven said. “Whether it’s to go with the open-source material option or to choose a lower cost textbook.”

The federal Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 requires all institutions to publish a list of required and recommended books for classes, including the retail price of the books.

But some students who testified say they could not find book information, or couldn’t find specific information — such as the book edition — to be useful in making their decision. Other students said the bill would do nothing to lower the costs of materials in mandatory courses.

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