NJ Legislature Looks to Throw the Books at High Cost of College Education

Lawmakers want schools to come up with plans to use ‘open textbooks,’ which do not require students to buy expensive access codes that unlock online assignments and quizzes

New Jersey legislators who have been focused on trying to reduce student-loan burdens are now tackling another high cost of college: textbooks.

Today, the Assembly Higher Education Committee is set to consider four bills aimed at cutting the cost of textbooks, which can total at least $1,200 per year, according to the College Board, a not-for-profit organization “created to expand access to education.” The textbook tally can be significantly higher for students in science, math, and engineering.

In a report released earlier this year, the Student Public Interest Research Groups found that the cost of textbooks has risen more than four times the rate of inflation over the past decade. While the use of used or rented textbooks has enabled students to save some money, a relatively recent trend, access codes needed to retrieve homework and quizzes online can force students to purchase a new book bundled with a one-time access code, driving costs even higher.

When a professor uses a textbook that includes an access code, a student often must buy the book new from the college bookstore, rather than used or as a rental at any bookstore or online. That’s because the access code is often not included with used or rented books. The SPIRG report found that students can save as much as 58 percent by buying a used book online. Book rentals, which require a student to send a book back by a certain date that is often close to that of the end of a semester, can save a student even more.

The SPIRG report, entitled Open 101: An Action Plan for Affordable Textbooks, makes a number of recommendations that it contends could save students across the country $1.5 billion. It most significant suggestion is to make all materials for general-education classes free to all students.

“Students often find that they spend the most on textbooks in their first few years of school, when they’re taking introductory classes such as statistics and psychology,” said Kaitlyn Vitez, higher education advocate for USPIRG and author of the report. “These courses are the ones that increasingly use textbooks bundled with expensive access codes. Thousands of free and open textbooks are available online for these core classes, so it’s frankly absurd. It’s high time that we took action to combat high textbook prices.”

Opening up college textbooks

All four bills the higher education committee is set to hear would address “open textbooks,” which would be available free to all. Each takes a slightly different approach, so it’s likely the committee will consolidate them into a combined bill. A-327, A-1149, A-3254, and S-768 would require all colleges and graduate schools to come up with a plan offering open textbooks and other digital resources that would both ensure a quality education and deliver savings to students. The state higher education secretary would then review the schools’ plans for approval.

The bills are not quite identical. The Senate version, co-sponsored by Sens. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) and Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Camden0, already passed the full house unanimously without any committee hearing as part of a 10-bill college affordability package approved by the Senate last February.

Two of the measures seek to have colleges implement the use of open textbooks as soon as possible, which could be as early as the 2019 spring semester if the bills are signed into law quickly. The other two set a July 1, 2020 deadline for the use of open texts. Two would apply to only public colleges, while the other two would affect private schools, as well.

A-327, which has five Democratic Assembly co-sponsors, seeks to impose an additional affordability provision on both public and independent colleges — except Princeton University, which would be exempt — by requiring college bookstores to buy back books from students at half the price they paid, whether they bought the book new or used — as long as the book is in good condition.

The measures would also require the secretary of higher education to submit an annual report to the governor and Legislature that specifies which schools are offering which open texts and what impact the program has had on reducing student costs.

Rutgers University has started a program meant to foster the use of so-called open educational resources. It estimates that open texts have saved students $2.1 million university-wide over the past two years. Through the Open and Affordable Textbooks Program, faculty and teaching staff are eligible for a $1,000 grant to innovate their teaching when they use open resources. To be eligible, a teacher must replace a traditional text with a free or low-cost alternative, with articles, book excepts, audio, or video licensed through the university’s libraries or available free online.

Blue-ribbon recommendations

Greater use of open textbooks was one of the recommendations made two years ago by the state’s blue-ribbon College Affordability Study Commission. Other suggestions included the expansion of certain student assistance programs, improved partnerships between community and four-year colleges, and greater education about student debt. The commission was created in response to the rising cost of college in New Jersey, and the state’s continued underfunding of public higher education. New Jersey’s four-year public colleges are among the most expensive in the nation, with the average cost of tuition and fees — not including room and board or the cost of textbooks and other supplies — totaling almost $14,000 in the school year that just ended.

“With open educational resources, there are no access codes, and students never lose access to their core content,” said Nicole Finkbeiner, associate director of institutional relations for OpenStax, an open textbooks publisher based at Rice University in Texas. “This enables students to continue to use and refer to their core content as they move forward in their studies, when studying for advancement exams, and in their professional lives, without any additional costs or barriers.”

Schools that have invested in open educational resources, which can be downloaded or accessed for free online, can save students more than $100 per course, the SPIRG report states.

A number of colleges nationwide have already embraced the concept, with a dozen showcased on the OER Commons website. Texts or resources are also available in a wide variety of disciplines, including the humanities, education, math, the physical and social sciences and even law.

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