Solutions for Higher Education

Episode 10: Text Book Costs & Open Texts


Let's talk about how much of an issue is the cost of textbooks for students getting through college.


Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again, everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education. I'm your host, Steve Meredith and I'm joined as always by Southern Utah University President, Scott L Wyatt. Good morning, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Good morning, Steve.

Meredith: It's good to have you here today and we're going to talk a great deal about a topic that is very important—perhaps one of the most important things that people in our industry worry about—and that is the cost of higher education, and are students going to be able to afford to continue to come to the college and the university. And we have a guest with us that I'll let you introduce today that is on the front lines of an effort by SUU to reduce or at least hold the line on costs for students.

Wyatt: Yeah, we are fortunate to have Dr. Richard Saunders with us today. Thanks for joining us.

Richard Saunders: My pleasure, thanks for letting me come.

Wyatt: And Richard is our Dean of Libraries. He's also a published author, has a PhD in History, so I think you know textbooks from every angle possible.

Saunders: I haven't written one yet, but I've used them and I've been through some other things with them that most people don't do, yes. [Laugher]

Wyatt: Well, so let's talk about how much of an issue is the cost of textbooks for students getting through college?

Saunders: It's a big cost and it's a big issue, and it's something that affects every student one way or another at some point in their careers. The figure right now, and it's a pretty well established figure, is that approximately 70% of students who go to college—from the top to the bottom, from the ivies down to the community colleges—about 70% choose not to buy a textbook or textbooks in at least one of their classes each term. Now that's huge. That means they're adopting a cost saving measure that they know is going to cost them in grades, and because of grades, potentially in how long it may take to complete a course of study.

Wyatt: Well, grades is part of it, but it's also just not getting the experience that's intended.

Saunders: Yeah, that's true.

Wyatt: You're missing a lot of the content that you're…that you signed up [for] and you're paying to get, just because you can't…

Saunders: Right.

Wyatt: So, what is the average cost of textbooks for a term?

Saunders: There was a study done in 2016—it hasn't yet been published, it's not been out yet, but I got a behind-the-scenes look at it—the average cost for a textbook in the state of Utah is $105 dollars. Now, that's all the way from entering freshman to seniors. The average cost when you look at it in some fields is dramatically higher than that. If you're in nursing for instance, it can be up to $300 bucks. If you're in history or English, it's maybe $20 a text because there's different texts involved, but it swings around widely. So the very programs that the state is most interested to see to grow also have the highest cost in the educational materials that are involved.

Wyatt: So what are we talking about? More than $500 a semester?

Saunders: Yeah. Yeah, it can be. Now it's not every class. And sometimes a class will use multiple texts. That's what really drives up the cost. But if you've got a $300 textbook, a $150 dollar textbook and a $90 textbook in the same class, that's going to be a challenge. And then if you add to that two or three classes, you can easily pay, on average in the state of Utah, we're looking at $1,200 a term, excuse me, $1,200 a year in textbooks. On average. And that's across majors everywhere.

Wyatt: So if it's $1,200 a year, and Southern Utah University's tuition is about $6,000, that means, if my math is right, about 20% of the cost.

Saunders: Yeah.

Meredith: That's added on after the fact.

Wyatt: That's added on after the fact.

Saunders: Right, and that's something that students can't choose to vary. Their either in or out, and historically from all we know from studies, that's the first place that a student will cut in order to stay solvent is their textbooks. And they'll do it knowing that they'll take a lower grade. They know full well what they're doing, it's just that's what they have to do in order to stay in the black.

Wyatt: We do these surveys all the time here about, "Why did you leave? Why did you drop out or why haven't you completed?" And we always get the same leading answer, which is, finances. It's cost. They drop out for a semester because they need to work to get some money or they have some financial challenges they didn't expect…whatever it might be. So it seems like anything we can do to mitigate costs will help them stay in.

Saunders: It helps. It doesn't solve the problem, you know, life keeps going on. But if finances is one of the major reasons for dropping out or for postponing one's education, then open texts have a way of mitigating the cost without sacrificing either the quality or the content.

Wyatt: So what do you mean when you say "open?"

Saunders: Open is…it kind of covers a range of material. There are five R's that are used in the open movement that allow a student or a user…an author for instance, if it was me, if I was writing a book, I might decide, "You know, I'm going to throw this into the open world." And I would license it with a creative commons license, which basically says up-front on the book what people can do with this material.

Meredith: Mhmm.

Saunders: They can hold on to it…

Wyatt: For free.

Saunders: Yeah.

Wyatt: For free.

Saunders: Often for free. Sometimes there's just a lower cost involved, nominal things, you know, $10 or $12 bucks. But it's a whole lot different than $150 or $350. But I can retain it, I can hold on to it for as long as I want without paying anything for it. I can remix it. I can take the book and, as a faculty member, have the freedom to chop it up and use it as I want to. If I don't want to use chapter six and I want to use chapter six from another book, I can just swap it in there no problem. That's part of the license.

Meredith: It's the iTunes model. [Laughter]

Saunders: It's the iTunes model. Yeah, it very much is.

Meredith: The "make your own playlist."

Saunders: Sure. And you can do that legally and legitimately. You can remix it, you can share it. The fun thing about open material is that it's specifically intended for people to mix up. They can do what they need to with it. And a student can hold on to that book for as long as they want to hold it. If they want to give it away, they can give it away too. There's nothing wrong with that at all. The beauty of that means that students can write in things—most of them are available digitally…that's the way books are made these days is digitally—but a good portion of them you can get as on-demand print copies. So rather than having to print 50,000 copies and then recoup the cost that way, you can simply print the number of copies you need for a particular course and it's available at cost basically.

Wyatt: Or you can read it online and just print a few pages if that's what you want to do.

Saunders: You can do that, yeah.

Wyatt: So I teach this general education class, American National Government, I have for about ten years, and I've never used a textbook. I've only used what's available online. Speeches, original documents, and if I was to collect all those and print them, I'd have to pay a royalty for some of them. But if students just access them online and read them there, then there's no royalties, no cost, and I've always had students very excited about this. [Laughter]

Saunders: Yeah.

Wyatt: "Wow, serious? It's free??"

Saunders: It can be free, yeah.

Wyatt: But what I've enjoyed about it, and so this doesn't work in all disciplines of course, but what I've enjoyed about it is, is that instead of having a student dependent on a book that we hand them, they start realizing the sources online and how to do research and where to get things. And that, to me, has been an important part of the learning experience. Is to get right into the full speech instead of a little excerpt of the speech that's in a textbook between pictures where somebody's trying to walk you through little sound bites.

Sanders: Right. Yeah, history and life are not lived in sound bites.

Wyatt: [Laughter] Yeah. I remember going to law school and there were not pictures in my books. It was harder to read them. [All laugh]

Meredith: What were they thinking?

Saunders: Yeah. And I did a fun thing, I taught an upper division history course last year or the year before last and I thought, "You know, I could require a textbook many of the professors have, but I opted to use two open textbooks. So the students didn't pay for them, they simply downloaded the things. And then I asked them to compare. And our approach to history was, "Why does one book say this? Why does the other book say this? How does the approach differ?" And that made the students think.

Wyatt: Wow, that's a great idea.

Saunders: And it really worked. It really worked. I got probably the best discussion in class I think I've ever had in a course that I've taught.

Meredith: So are there barriers to…I mean, why don't' we just do this? And what is SUU doing to embrace this?

Saunders: Well, there are barriers, and it's called "habit" as much as anything else. We've spent…higher education has spent a hundred and some-odd years using these off-the-shelf print textbooks, and it's kind of hard to kind of change mid-stream. Open movement has been around for about ten years. That's fairly new. It takes a long time to get a book up and running. So that's part of it, it's just habit. SUU has done something that I think is really impressive. We're putting together—we've put together a four year initiative—to systematically go through the General Education courses specifically, and we're looking course-by-course to see what we can replace, what commercial texts we can replace with an open text. Now, there's a lot of noise— and rightly so in higher education—about the idea of peer-review. Of other professionals who have weighed in on a book and said, "Yes, this really covers the way things it should be." But open works, when you look at the ones that are available, they're also peer-reviewed. That's part of the point of the open movement is that all that you're doing is changing the way that it's paid for. You're not necessarily lessening the value or the cost or the expertise or the sophistication or the challenge of the textbook. There are some people who are willing to writing open texts themselves and take a bit of a payment upfront from a publisher—from an open publisher—in lieu of taking royalties on the back end.

Meredith: Mhmm.

Saunders: But frankly, most people don't make that much in royalties on the back end anyway. So it really is a better…it's a better bet.

Wyatt: So the faculty aren't earning that much money from textbooks? Is that what you're saying?

Saunders: The vast majority of faculty do not author textbooks. They use them, but they don't author them. There are some who do, but even so, I'm fairly comfortable saying that there are only a very, very, very small handful that make a lot of money, and most of them would have more than one textbook. A gentleman that I know in Tennessee has got a whole series of philosophy textbooks for instance, and that's his second job. He sits in his house after he teaches classes and he pulls together these philosophy texts. And he is making a lot of money, but he's only one professor out of an entire college of 200 people that is doing so.

Wyatt: Yeah, so my father was a faculty member and he wrote a textbook—an electrical engineering faculty member—and it was not a textbook that a freshman would buy. [Laughter]

Saunders: Yeah, there are those too.

Wyatt: But he used to tell me that he didn't make any money off of it, but it did make him famous. What he meant by that was, is that his reputation grew, people saw him as an expert in this area, but for the money, it didn't do anything for him.

Saunders: Sure. And open doesn't change that dynamic much at all. You still won't make much money from it, but the reputation is still there. A good textbook is still a good textbook.

Wyatt: So who's really doing a great job of this in the country?

Saunders. Oregon is. Virginia is climbing on board really quickly. British Columbia just across the border in Canada is doing a spanky job. They've not only moved to open texts, but British Columbia is also changing the way that academic publishing is happening. They commissioned what's called the Open Journal System which is a digital platform for digital journals. And they're making it available to everybody. The goal in Canada is to replace all, and I mean all, 700 journals published in the country with open material. Every one of them. So to get rid of subscriptions entirely. They'll continue going forward, but they'll be published in open platforms.

Wyatt: This is a barrier to learning and not just for students, but for the public, researchers, for anybody.

Saunders: Yeah. Well, and it…open offers an opportunity for parody as well. And I'm thinking about abroad here. So for instance, one of the challenges in South America—and I actually…my sister-in-law served a Fulbright in Ecuador—they were looking at academic libraries in South America whose acquisition budget for the entire year was $100. And places in Africa whose acquisition budget, colleges in Africa whose acquisition budget is about the same.

Wyatt: [Laughter]

Saunders: I work in an academic library. I know what books cost. I know that you can't sustain a library. But you could do it with open.

Wyatt: So I visited a university that we have been trying to be of help to in Congo…

Saunders: Mhmm…

Wyatt:…The University of Science and Technology of Lodja. And their bibliotech has a grant total of zero books.

Saunders: Mhmm.

Wyatt: So their acquisition budget is rather small.

Saunders: It is.

Wyatt: They just don't have any money. They can afford some faculty members, but that's all they can do. So this open movement has a variety of options. One is that we just simply go online…the faculty member simply goes online and finds what's available and puts it together in a way that satisfies the needs for the course.

Saunders: Right.

Wyatt: And that's…nobody does any of that work except for the faculty member. That's what I've done with my one class. Another option is, is that we have some kind of an open publisher who hires faculty members to prepare texts and then there's a variety of ways those texts can be used, mixed, and those would be available to the students for free or for almost free.

Saunders: Yeah, pretty much. For instance, the one that I used…one of the ones that I used was from a firm called OpenStax. OpenStax was funded by the Hewlett Foundation. Hewlett put over ten million dollars into textbooks with the explicit proviso that all of them be available to students digitally at no cost at all. And they're very sophisticated texts. They would stack up well against any commercial textbook. The other one that I used in my class was a peer-reviewed text out of the University of North Carolina I think, that…no, the University of North Georgia…and it was done by three faculty members there on campus and it covered the time that I wanted and it worked beautifully well. So yeah. digital at no cost.

Wyatt: Yeah. And this movement is only about ten years old, so it will be interesting to see what happens in the next ten years. What is your prediction ten years from today?

Saunders: I think it's going to have to change the way…well, I know it is. It's already changing the way that commercial textbooks are responding to the market. Now they're doing stunts like, "Well, we'll give you the textbook, but you can buy an access code to get into the rest of the supplementary material." So all they're doing is just disguising what's getting paid for. I'm watching a lot of material come out—and not an awful lot every day, I mean, we've done textbook publication for a hundred and some-odd years so it's not going to happen overnight—but the open textbook library out of the University of Minnesota has over 350 works in it now across the range from law to science to all those kinds of things. All of those are completely open. They're a CC by licenses. It's Creative Commons Attribution licenses, so all you have to do is just acknowledge where you got the book from and that's it. There are other options as well. There's' also a Creative Commons No Derivatives. In other words, you can have this book, you can do what you want with it, just please don't make any changes to the text we have. I think that's the direction that a good portion of scholarship is going to go. With the federal requirements for open publication during…for funded research, that's where we can go as well. I'm exploring doing the next one of my books as an open work. It was done in the 1960s, I have the rights to the text, and rather than try and push this even through an academic publisher, I'm looking for somebody who would do it as an academic publisher but as an open text to make sure that it's available for good.

Wyatt: Well, the requirement for faculty members to do scholarly works, to create publications, it doesn't matter if it's…

Saunders: As long as it can pass peer-review, as long as a work has a vetting by others in the field, it's peer-reviewed. That doesn't than necessarily that the publisher has to pour money into it.

Wyatt: Yeah. So as far as tenure goes and all the research requirements for faculty, no one cares if it's paid. They just care…we just care if it's good quality.

Saunders: That's pretty much it.

Wyatt: Well it sure would be fun to be able to see the cost of textbooks over the next few years cut in half because of these kinds of initiatives. It would make a significant improvement for students' experience, both learning more because they would have access rather than, as you said, 70% don't even buy the textbook so they don't have access to that part. So it would increase the learning experience, it would increase the grades…

Saunders: It would increase retention.

Wyatt: It would increase retention, because when they're successful, they do better.

Saunders: And they tend to stay. That's the one thing I guess I haven't mentioned…

Wyatt: Reducing the cost increases success.

Saunders: The one…I guess I didn't mention that one of the faculty members here in one of the science departments at SUU did his own quiet experiment. He compared the grades and the retention of his students in sections using a commercial text and his own sections using an open text. And what he found was, there's about a 15% increase in completion. So 15% more students completed the classes with the sole variable of using an open textbook. The grades didn't go up dramatically, but they didn't go down. The DFW, or the grades of a D and F or a withdrawal, decreased at about the same 15% rate. So just having the textbook open and available to students the first day—they didn't have to delay, they didn't have to not buy it—they just had the textbook. That's what made the difference.

Wyatt: Those are the kind of experiments and tests that we should be doing more of.

Saunders: Mhmm.

Wyatt: Our goal is always to help students learn. Have great learning outcomes, career options and other things after they graduate. And in order to do that, we need to make the experience better, reduce the cost, get more materials in front of students instead of less.

Saunders: [Laugher] True story.

Wyatt: $1,200 a year. That's a lot of money on textbooks.

Saunders: That's a lot of money. And that's an average. So there will be some that are $400 or $500 dollars, but that means there are some that come closer to $2,000.

Meredith: And it helps with transparency.

Saunders: It sure does.

Meredith: You know, if we want to really know what it costs to go to school…if you show up and suddenly somebody ladles on an additional $1,000 bucks that you weren't planning on, it makes a big, big difference. Moms and dads, students, everybody as they plan to go.

Saunders: Yeah.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott Wyatt, president of Southern Utah University. We've been honored to have as our guest today Dr. Richard Saunders, the Dean of SUU Library Services. We'll be back again soon. Thanks so much for listening, bye bye.