Concerns about cost of college textbooks focus of proposal in Minnesota, new federal grants

Five years ago, a little more than 2,000 students from 150 different U.S. university campuses were asked the following question: Have you ever decided against buying (or renting) a textbook because it was too expensive?
Sixty-five percent of the respondents to this U.S. Public Interest Research Group survey said “yes,” and nearly all of them also noted that they were concerned the decision would hurt them academically.
The survey results helped bring attention to a sometimes overlooked facet of college expenses — the cost of books and supplies. During the most recent school year, students at four-year public colleges spent an average of $1,250 on these materials, according to estimates from the College Board.
“If you walk into a Barnes & Noble, it’s hard to find any book that costs more than $40,” Minnesota Sen. Rich Draheim says. “It’s the exact opposite for college students. I understand that for specialized classes, costs are going to be high. But I think we can do better with what is offered for the more general or introductory courses.”

His response was SF 3098, a version of which was passed by the Legislature as part of a broader budget bill ultimately vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton. Draheim’s measure, which he plans to introduce again next session, identifies two strategies: 1) more transparency for students, and 2) an increased use of affordable textbooks and instructional materials within the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.
To meet the first objective, Draheim wants higher-education officials to explore the use of software that allows students to see the cost of textbooks and instructional materials prior to or while registering for classes. Central to reaching the second goal would be completion of a plan (mandated by the Legislature) by Minnesota State Colleges and Universities that, in part, defines “affordable textbooks” and specifies what percentage of the system’s courses should be offering them.
Under his original legislation, Draheim pegged “affordable textbook” as meaning $40 or less, and called for 15 percent of courses to use these materials. Meanwhile, at the federal level, the U.S. Congress passed legislation earlier this year creating a $5 million competitive grant program for colleges to expand the use of “open source” textbooks. These materials are available under an “open license,” thus allowing professors, students and others to freely access them.
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