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Watch $750K turn into $41 million: Washington attacks college textbook costs.

July 9, 2010

What a racket

Regular readers know that I have a tendency to push, prod and agitate on this blog for ways that state government can be more responsive to real people living real lives. I admit to a certain disposition to question old assumptions and stale policies.

Today I’m deeply honored and excited to share a story that is stunning in it’s simplicity and yet I believe has set the stage for bold, systematic change. (OK, I’m part of the central cast but I hope you’ll take the time to look deeper and let me brag just a little bit.)

Today I’d like to tell you how a ONE TIME state investment of $750,000 in precious tax dollars has the very real likelihood of turning into a $41 million savings ANNUALLY for college students in Washington. Are you awake now?

Every state talks about it. We’re doing something real, meaningful and measurable that is part of a worldwide movement away from expensive, proprietary textbooks toward open courseware.

First, with access to the opportunity of college becoming more difficult for students and families, it’s time for a courageously open conversation about the cost of higher education in Washington and nationally. Our state policies toward tuition consume most of the attention from the media, legislators, governors, parents and, of course, students. It is a lightening rod of internal debates between friends. No one is in favor of ‘high tuition,’ or ‘low financial aid,’ but everyone recognizes that we need to find a way to BOTH provide state support for students and enable institutions to have more flexibility to meet local needs while maintaining the state’s rock solid commitment to student access and affordability.

Unfortunately, tuition is only one piece of the puzzle and yet it sucks the oxygen out of the room of so many other issues that impact the ‘total cost of attendance’ for students. The best example? Every family, whether rich, poor or squarely in the middle, has the exact same sense of moral outrage staring at textbook bill that now averages more than $1,000 a year for a regular full time student.

I have long held a fascination with the ruthless cost of textbooks at our colleges and universities. One of the projects I am most proud of from my first term in the Legislature is a $750,000 appropriation that I worked very, very hard to successfully include in the 2009-2011 budget. The appropriation created an open textbook and course material program for our state’s community and technical college students.

Here is a recent memo from Dr. Cable Green, the indefatigable and passionate Director of eLearning and Open Education at the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. Through building a coalition of partners in the public and private sectors, and giving faculty the respect to lead on the vital ingredient of curriculum, Cable has created a model that can work for college students nationwide.

(Beginning of report)

Project Goals

The “Open Course Library” is about designing and sharing 81 high enrollment, gatekeeper courses for face-to-face, hybrid and/or online delivery, to improve course completion rates, lower textbook costs for students (<$30), provide new resources for faculty to use in their courses, and for our college system to fully engage the global open educational resources discussion. This last point is straight from a guiding principle in our Strategic Technology Plan to “cultivate the culture and practice of using and contributing to open educational resources.”

What is the problem?

The high cost of textbooks has reduced Washington citizens’ access to higher education.

1. According to the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, 200,000 qualified students fail to enroll in college each year due to cost. The high cost of textbooks is a significant financial barrier for many students.

2. Full-time students spend approximately $1,000 on textbooks every year.
• Consider just one high enrollment course in Washington Community and Technical Colleges
o English Composition I = 46,000+ enrollments / year x $100 textbook = $4.6M / year
• 2005 GAO report: College textbook prices have risen at twice the rate of annual inflation over the last two decades.

3. Students ran a national campaign called “Make Textbooks Affordable” to both raise awareness and to ask faculty to “state their intent to include open textbooks in their search for the most appropriate course materials.”

• The Washington Community and Technical College “Student Legislative Academy” have kept “Textbook Affordability” on the top of their legislative platform for the last three years.

Partnership: Washington State & Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

State support of $750,000 for the Open Course Library allowed SBCTC to secure a three-year $750,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Open Course Library will design 81 high enrollment courses and have them ready for use by fall 2011 (44 courses in phase 1) and fall 2012 (37+ courses in phase 2).

The Open Course Library has the goal of significantly lowering textbook costs for Washington students:

• 81 courses = 411,133 enrollments / year
• 411,133 enrollments x $100 textbook = $41M+ in textbook costs / student debt per year
• Limit on textbook costs in redesigned courses is $30. If courses are adopted by 25% of the sections in the system (faculty decision), the savings to students will be $7.2M per year.
• Savings increase with increased adoptions and/or when courses use free, open textbooks.

Additional Benefits

The Open Course Library project and vision has already affected SBCTC policy and is attracting new foundation and federal grant opportunities to Washington State Community and Technical Colleges.

1. New SBCTC “Open Licensing” Policy
o “All digital software, educational resources and knowledge produced through competitive grants, offered through and/or managed by the SBCTC, will carry a Creative Commons Attribution License.”
o This policy will allow system colleges to realize the educational impact from the substantial investments the state, the federal government, and foundations have made (and will continue to make) in digital software, educational resources and knowledge.

2. The United States Departments of Education and Labor are working to provide $2 Billion (over 4 years) for “open educational resources for displaced workers. SBCTC has been highlighted as a national leader in community and technical college “open education” and “workforce education” and will be working on securing grants for Washington.

3. Rice University’s Connexions and SBCTC are submitting a US Department of Education FIPSE grant to break the Open Course Library courses into smaller “modules” and tag (metadata) them all … so they can be more easily searched and recombined into new educational collections. $750,000 over three years.

4. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently launched a “Next Gen Learning Challenges” grant. SBCTC was invited to help provide insight into the grant and will be closely reviewing the Open Core Courseware grants when they are released.

5. The Open Course Library has sparked an international project called “Top 50 Courses.” SBCTC is partnering with CA, TX, OH, FL, AZ, CT, British Columbia and New Zealand to list the highest enrolled, common courses across the United States and around the world.

o We are building a matrix that shows, for example, the hundreds of thousands of enrollments in “Psychology 101,” and links to all of the “Psychology 101” open textbooks and open courseware.

o Where there are gaps in the open courseware / textbook matrix (e.g., we collectively can’t find a high quality “Sociology 101” textbook), we will collectively submit a grant for private and/or public funding to create and maintain the needed content and openly license it so anyone can use and modify it freely.

(End of Report)

My deepest congratulations and thanks to Cable and the entire community and technical college team of faculty, students, foundations and administrators who are working so hard to make this a huge success. I continue to be particularly impressed with the advocacy of faculty who see it not as a threat to their teaching freedom, but as a way to unleash shared knowledge in a complex world. They are helping our state education more people to higher levels, and that’s what it’s all about.

Your partner in service,


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