Textbook rebellion spreading on college campuses

Student activists are mad. Protests over tuition increases have been put on hold (for the time being). Their wrath now is turning to a different target – soaring textbook costs. Federal studies show the cost of college textbooks has grown more than four times faster than the rate of inflation since 2000. The College Board estimates the average full time student will spend more than $1,100 on textbooks this year.

Consequently, the Textbook Rebellion, which launched August 31 at the University of Maryland, is taking its protest to 40 college campuses in 14 states during fall semester. As with any decent college athletic program, the Textbook Rebellion tour even brings in tow colorful, furry mascots: “Mr. $200 Textbook” and “Textbook Rebel.”  

Three thousand people have also signed a petition on the Textbook Rebellion’s Website calling for textbook publishers to make their learning tools more affordable. The petition also calls on professors to find less expensive quality alternatives to high-priced textbooks. The most commonly touted answer involves so-called “open textbooks” – those that are free for anyone to use, re-use and redistribute without violating copyright laws. This can include textbooks available to download online.

“Open textbooks are an ideal solution, because they can be freely accessed, adapted and printed at a low cost,” the organization's Website suggests. “Decision-makers should prioritize support for open textbooks.” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan also endorsed open textbooks in a statement. “Open Educational Resources are critical in helping us meet the President’s 2020 goal: to make America number one in the world for college graduates,” Duncan said. “These free resources can create high-quality educational opportunities for students, veterans and returning workers, grow our economy, and help us out-educate, out-innovate and outcompete the rest of the world.”

Open textbooks reduce textbook expenses by 80 percent, according to Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs). It conducted a survey that finds 70 percent of students report not purchasing at least one textbook for a college course due to high cost. 78 percent of them believe their grade will suffer as a result.  

At least three states introduced legislation in 2011 to try to reign in textbook costs. Mississippi HB 158 outlined numerous requirements for publishers, public institutions, faculty, and stores in an effort to address textbook affordability. New York SB 557 would authorize the state and city university systems to each appoint a 12-person academic review board (consisting solely of faculty members) to “serve as an interface between the publishing industry and the management of the independent bookstores.”  The boards are charged with creating cost-control policies for the on-campus sale of textbooks. Finally, HB 455 in Texas Would waive sales taxes on books bought by college and university students during a four-week period at the start of each semester. None of the bills has been adopted.

California introduced open textbooks in public K-12 schools in 2009. In the first-ever statewide initiative to bring open textbooks into classrooms, textbook developers were invited to submit their products for state review. Sixteen submissions in the areas of algebra II, biology/life science, calculus, chemistry, earth science, physics, and trigonometry were scrutinized for coverage of the relevant California content standards. Ten submissions were approved: Four met all relevant content standards and another six met 90% or more.