The recent headline that college textbook prices have increased in price by ~1,000% since 1978 shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention.

When we talk about access and affordability, textbook prices are a small but nonetheless costly slice of the pie. Unfortunately it seems like the depreciatory effects that so much of the digital economy has don’t necessarily extend to textbooks. The major publishers can now regulate access to books through expiring licenses that eliminate the secondary market for used versions. The solution is Open Educational Resources, which Anthony Panichelli gave a great talk on at Penn State last year:

Essentially the concept is to apply open source principles to the curriculum. I believe this should be a priority for deans within the colleges. The percent of required class materials could be tracked as a key data point to inform academic governance as well as institutional access and affordability. For whatever percent of materials that couldn’t go open source for whatever reason, donors could be solicited to establish endowments to provide a certain percentage of materials into perpetuity, becoming a de facto patron of that course. 

Imagine a university president being able to say, “In the College of Liberal Arts our faculty have created a world class open education curriculum for 97% of their courses, and alumni support has enabled us to cover the costs of the remainder. We believe knowledge should be accessible to everyone, so we’ve made this a public resource to ensure students no longer have to pay a fee to encounter some of civilization’s most important knowledge.”

This is a small and subtle cost when looking at the total cost of an education. But for that reason more than any other it’s one we can separate from the herd of other cost centers and tackle.