In the news: An alternative to expensive college textbooks

August 25, 2020

Dr. Rafael Castillo

I’ve never forgotten the shock during my early college years when I went into my campus bookstore to buy textbooks. The reading list for some of my courses listed up to seven books. The cost of the biology and chemistry books alone were astronomical — even the alternative of renting books was financially burdensome.

Today, the average college student spends more than $1,200 on books and materials over an academic year, according to the College Board.

The average cost of books has “risen four times faster than the rate of inflation over the last 10 years,” according to a 2018 CBS News report. This traumatizing effect has caused 65 percent of students nationwide — most on restrictive budgets — to forgo books at some juncture of their college careers.

What’s driving the prohibitive costs of these textbooks? One culprit is the concept of bundled textbooks with access codes, which expire at the end of the semester. These access codes require students to buy books at retail prices at college bookstores but are rendered worthless at the end of the term.

Luckily, for today’s students, the days of expensive college textbooks are coming to an end. A revolutionary alternative is freeing students and faculty from costly materials while helping students learn without burdening their or their parents’ checkbook.

A few years ago, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law SB 810, creating a statewide Open Educational Resources, or OER, grant. This gives Texas colleges and universities authority to establish protocols for OER course designations in college catalogs, schedules and registration.

So what’s an OER? It makes videos, books, scholarly articles and primary resource materials available to faculty and students at no cost. OER materials allow students and teachers to collaborate, develop, review and revise content shared gratis in a Creative Commons platform. These educational resources are easily adaptable for all college courses and meet the specifications for courses such as anatomy, anthropology, biology, education, English, mathematics and the humanities.

With students already burdened with costly tuition and rising prices for books, designated OER courses are advantageous, especially for first-generation students. Using open educational resources places students on an equal footing because digital material can be copied from Creative Commons websites that hold access to millions of videos, photos and archival texts, even those that have an expired copyright, under the public domain.

The Texas State Library and the Archives Commission includes approximately 37 websites with varying degrees of OER material available to students who need college reading material. In addition, hundreds of universities, private and public, offer free assistance with a mere login.

I’ve used scholarly material from Creative Commons that offered free, translated ancient Greek and Roman literature with a mere attribution requirement. Some OER websites even allow students to engage in direct translation exercises. In other words, OER provides the student and the instructor materials that have been placed in the public domain for download.

The wonderful, thick anthologies of yesteryear with accompanying pictures are evaporating as quickly as raindrops on a sizzling Texas afternoon. Courses with OER designation are the best solution for pricey books and materials. Quot libros, quam breve tempus.

This commentary by Dr. Rafael Castillo, professor of English and humanities at Palo Alto College, was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News and