Free textbooks? It could soon be a reality at California’s community colleges
For the last decade Teague O’Shea has been in and out of college. Now, at 42 years old, he is trying again. Furthering his education was important to O’Shea, who had been working as an apprentice electrician for his local water district, but the rising cost of college made him question its worth.
“California is a really expensive place to live and I’m already paying for college,” O’Shea said. “I’m paying $463 for three classes and I’m like, ‘That’s fine.’ But I can’t imagine going full time and paying more. I can’t imagine having to spend more money on books — I would not be happy.”
O’Shea is working towards his associate’s degree in the Water Systems Technology program, which prepares students for careers in wastewater management or drinking water distribution and treatment. In the program, at least one major cost is covered: O’Shea’s courses all use free non-copyrighted materials created by the college itself. That takes some of the pressure off O’Shea, he said, so he can focus on his goal of becoming a certified water plant manager.
“I feel like I’m being prepared to re-enter the industry,” he said.
California college students spend on average $938 per year on textbooks and materials, according to the California Student Aid Commission’s 2021-2022 Student Expenses and Resources Survey.
One idea under consideration by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office is to fund community colleges to produce their own textbooks. The system must decide how to spend $115 million in state funds set aside to reduce the burden of textbook costs. Every community college will receive $20,000 to design zero-textbook-cost programs and an additional $180,000 to implement them. Some colleges will also get larger, competitive grants.
Colleges could spend the money on anything from publishing their own textbooks to using free, publicly available textbooks — known as “open educational resources” — created by professors at other schools. They could also simply give some students money to buy traditional textbooks.
“So we really see textbooks as almost a symptom to a bigger issue around students’ financial stability, right? Especially the students we serve that come into our colleges, many of them are already at a deficit without sufficient financial resources,” said Rebecca Ruan-O’Shaughnessy, vice chancellor for educational services and support at the Chancellor’s Office.
Many community colleges already have some classes that use open educational resources, often marked in course catalogs as “zero textbook cost.” Yet those courses often fill up fast, Ruan-O’Shaughnessy said, and students aren’t always aware they are being offered.
“The statewide approach will help standardize and streamline the process for students to get into class with low instructional materials cost.”—Jerry Vakshylyak, a student at Mission College in Santa Clara serving on the California Community Colleges’ newly created textbook-costs task force
Overall, open educational resources have so far failed to build the same level of traction that traditional publishers have. Even at College of the Canyons, one of the colleges most invested in the approach, only 35% of professors use open educational resources. And while many colleges give some eligible students grants for textbooks, they usually have to jump through administrative hoops to get them.
Ruan-O’Shaughnessy said the Chancellor’s Office wants to gather data about zero-textbook-cost courses across the state’s 115 community colleges, identify successes that have so far been isolated to individual campuses or regions, and create a long-term, sustainable model.
Jerry Vakshylyak, a student at Mission College in Santa Clara serving on the California Community Colleges’ newly created textbook-costs task force, still remembers having to spend $300 for a French textbook two semesters back.
“It was just absolutely insane for an online copy for that French textbook,” said Vakshylyak. He now makes sure to enroll in classes with zero-textbook-cost options. “I’m in mostly ZTC courses, primarily because of how much of a burden it could be with textbook costs,” said Vakshylyak.
Vakshylak said that kind of help should be available to all students.
“The statewide approach will help standardize and streamline the process for students to get into class with low instructional materials cost,” he said.
Students have found creative ways to access academic materials. Since 2009, the website Z-library has been a hub for free scholarly journals and full college textbooks. But last year, the federal government shut it down, alleging copyright infringement. The online library is now back up but makes users log in where they are redirected to a personal domain.
East Los Angeles College student Rene Jimenez rents his textbooks, which he said saves him hundreds of dollars each semester. “Renting makes so much sense when you’re getting your general requirements done because you rarely need the textbooks for other classes,” Jimenez said. “It’s way cheaper most of the time, so it alleviates some financial stress, which is important when everything these days is so, so expensive.”
Some advocates say the recent focus on materials cost is an opportunity for a larger shift in the textbook business, and that colleges across the system should create their own cache of materials and textbooks that best serve the students that need them.
“It’s just a different way of thinking about how we use information resources and education, thinking about it more as part of the infrastructure on which we teach and learn, as opposed to products that you purchase from a publisher,” said Nicole Allen, who as a student organized a campaign around textbook costs before becoming head of communications at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, a nonprofit pushing for more open educational resources. “And, I think that mindset shift is a really big opportunity in California.”
A 2023 Student Public Interest Research Group report found that every dollar invested in open educational resources saves students $10 to $20. One of the benefits of investing in open educational resources is the continued use of them after the initial investment, Allen said.
“There’s such a compelling case for investment in these types of resources. Because if you can build them, you can use them,” said Allen. “And others can use them, too, unlike traditional textbooks where if you buy a one-year subscription to a digital textbook, you have to buy that subscription again the next year, and the next year and the next year.”
Tyler Reed, senior director of communications at McGraw Hill, one of the largest textbook publishers in the nation, says the onus is on all involved in higher education to deliver course materials with value that students can afford.
“We believe there is room in the higher education ecosystem for all course materials options, including open educational resources. Let’s give institutions, instructors and students the broadest range of choices,” Reed said in a statement to CalMatters.
College of the Canyons has created a new department to focus on finding, adapting, authoring and publishing open educational resources. Current and former students are employed by the college to blend and splice free online texts into cohesive works to meet their needs, said James Glapa-Grossklag, the college’s dean of educational technology, learning resources and distance learning.
“So we really see textbooks as almost a symptom to a bigger issue around students’ financial stability.”— Rebecca Ruan-O’Shaughnessy, vice chancellor for educational services and support at the Chancellor’s Office.
Additionally, if faculty members decide they need to write new material to fit the needs of their class, College of the Canyons will provide a stipend.
The campus has seen some success with this model. But adoption has been slowed by the fact that the college offers a lot of specialized disciplines, such as occupational therapy, welding and auto mechanics, for which no online educational resources currently exist, Glapa-Grossklag said.
“There is definitely a rift between the humanities and STEM majors,” said Kyra Karatsu, a College of the Canyons graduate working on the project. “There’s all these resources for majors like communications or history. But when you start to look at classes like math, or even chemistry, there’s not a lot of resources there.”
One reason is the lock that the traditional textbook industry has on the market in those disciplines, said Mark Healy, the open educational resources coordinator for the Foothill-DeAnza Community College District, another early adopter of free textbooks. Math textbook publishers often bundle together online textbooks with other resources like online testing, he said, charging students hundreds of dollars for access codes that must be renewed if they take the class again.
Healy, who is also a psychology professor, has made all his classes zero-textbook-cost. “It’s really great to tell students that they don’t have to pay anything beyond tuition to take the class,” he said.
Story and González are fellows with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.