With all the excitement that accompanies the kickoff of the fall 2018 semester, it is important to consider the thousands of students who will struggle with textbook expenses. According to the Ohio State University Student Financial Aid website, incoming freshmen should budget $1,168 for textbooks and course materials for the upcoming academic year.

Some assume if an 18-year-old can afford to attend college, they can afford to pay for textbooks. The stereotypical image of the college student wearing $200 headphones, typing away on a $1,300 laptop, with a $5 cup of Starbucks coffee in hand comes to mind for some proponents of this assumption.

The reality is that textbook costs have risen three to four times the inflation rate since 1980, according to a report from U.S. PIRG, an advocacy group for public interest.

Given the enormous rise in textbook costs, an increasing amount of students cannot pay for relevant course materials and continue to engage in strategic negotiating practices to cope with the costs. From buying an older edition of the textbook to forgoing purchasing the textbook completely, students are getting creative to manage textbook costs, and for good reason.

ith many of these popular coping strategies comes negative academic trade-offs. According to the 2016 Florida Student Textbook survey that sampled more than 22,000 college students, almost 50 percent of students took fewer courses to cope with high textbook costs, 38 percent of students earned a poor grade and 20 percent of students failed a course that assigned an expensive textbook. The reason being that they didn’t have access to the textbook or other course materials (for example, ancillary materials like homework assignments) to study for upcoming quizzes, exams and other relevant assignments simply because they couldn’t afford it. In extreme but increasingly common cases, students are switching or dropping out of certain majors or disciplines completely due to the culminating costs of course materials and textbooks across several classes over a period of time.

All of this sounds far from one of the primary goals of higher education-to be accessible to everyone regardless of background. Sadly, it appears the very institutions that are suppose to eradicate these social inequities might be exacerbating them through costs barriers seen in college textbooks.

But there are some instructors who can control what materials they assign in the classroom. So there is something that these instructors can do to aid the problem, and students especially need to be aware of this. If an instructor has the flexibility and academic autonomy, I believe they should consider looking at open educational resources (OER) as an alternative to assigning traditional textbooks.

OERs are low-cost or free materials that come with an open license. Unlike restrictive copyright licenses found in many traditional textbooks, open licenses give users certain permissions such as copying, keeping the material indefinitely, editing, sharing, and combining it with other openly licensed materials. OERs range greatly in subject matter and are housed in online repositories such as the Open Textbook Library, OER Commons, OER Digest, and OpenStax.

There are several benefits for faculty using OER in the classroom, including the free exchange of information and the enhanced faculty autonomy. Instead of assigning students to read five chapters out of a nine-chapter textbook (which is not a good use of time or students’ money), faculty can take out, insert, and tailor content to their liking to adhere to their course’s respective learning outcomes because of the material’s open license. Furthermore, many OERs are created and authored by renowned faculty at colleges and universities nationwide.

I am one of the faculty members who firmly believes in the utility of OER. I was a first-generation college student. I’m a 30-something college instructor, so I’m not very far removed from the college experience; I know firsthand how it feels to (barely) deal with high textbook costs, as I spent $594 on textbooks during the first semester of my freshman year in college.

Therefore, purely motivated by my students’ horrible textbook experiences and narratives, I created a free, openly licensed textbook for one of my courses, Writing for Strategic Communication, thanks to a grant provide by the Ohio State University’s Affordable Learning Exchange (ALX) program. I challenge professors who are frustrated with their current textbooks to do the same. Ohio State instructors are so fortunate to be at an institution that has the infrastructure in place to make OER adoption and creation possible through President Drake’s 2020 vision — that is certainly not the case at many universities across the country.

Yet OERs have been heavily criticized from skeptics. When one mentions the word “free,” an association that comes to mind is “poor quality” which might derive from the “you get what you pay for” mentality. Some faculty question the quality of OER.

I am not going to assert that all OERs are of high quality, just like I am not going to say that all traditional commercial textbooks are high quality (I’ve reviewed some subpar ones). But there is a growing body of research examining the quality of OER, including a study by Ohio State’s own Dr. Shanna Jaggars, Amanda Folk and David Mullins that looked at OER adoption at the university. The study found that the majority of Ohio State students and faculty alike who used OER rate their quality favorably; sometimes more favorably than traditional textbooks.

A recently-published longitudinal study from the University of Georgia examined eight large undergraduate course from 2010 to 2016 and found that students enrolled in courses that used OER performed better academically and received higher grades compared with those students enrolled in courses that used commercial textbooks. That same study found that DFW rates (the number of students who withdrew from the course or received a D of F grade) decreased; the greatest grade improvement was among nonwhite students and Pell-eligible students. DFW rates are of particular importance to university department heads and administrators.

Lastly, a study produced by Gabrielle Vojtech and Dr. Judy Grissett found that students gave more favorable evaluations to instructors who used OER in the classroom, compared with those who did not, particularly on “kindness, empathy, and creativity.” So it appears that OER has some empirical evidence to back up its effectiveness.  

I do understand that OER is not the best choice for all instructors and their courses; I am not trying to present openly licensed materials as a silver bullet for the problematic nature of higher education costs. But I strongly believe that what professors do is a public service, especially a professor employed at a public institution. Therefore, professors need to ensure that they are minimizing barriers within their control, include costs barriers, in order to a create an effective learning experience for their most important public-students.

I also challenge students to hold professors accountable to ensure they are implementing affordable learning practices in their classroom. There are very simple things students can do to bring the awareness of OER to your professors or advocate for affordable learning.

Tell them that the university offers grants to faculty who adopt and/or create OER (faculty love grant opportunities). Furthermore, the student government organization should collaborate with key stakeholders to create teaching awards for faculty advocates who use affordable learning practices in exemplary ways. Advocate for low or no cost designators in Ohio State’s official course catalog for classes that use affordable materials. This is seen at institutions like the University of Georgia, and would certainly be helpful to Ohio State students when they register for classes. Finally, you can ask professors if they can can put the required textbooks on course reserves at the library.

Remember, you’re not alone in your frustration with high textbook costs. Many college students have taken to social media using the hashtag #textbookbroke to discuss how much they’ve spent on college textbooks alone and what they could’ve used that money on instead. The key, however, is to turn your discontent into action. Your stories are powerful and effective, and they deserved to be heard just as everyone deserves to have a high quality education regardless of income background.

Jasmine Roberts is a lecturer at Ohio State in the School of Communication.