Credit: UC Riverside

Concerned about the impact on student success at the University of California, Riverside, a task force composed of faculty, librarians, and information technologists launched the Affordable Course Materials Initiative in fall 2015.

Buy food or books. That is the choice many UC Riverside students face as the cost of textbooks continues to rise.

Concerned about the impact on student success at the University of California, Riverside, a task force composed of faculty, librarians, and information technologists launched the Affordable Course Materials Initiative in fall 2015. The project encourages faculty to choose textbooks and other resources that are available online free or at significantly lower cost.

“UC Riverside students come from less-privileged backgrounds, which means textbooks are a burden,” said Chikako Takeshita, a professor of gender and sexuality studies who organized the task force. “Students skip buying books because they can’t afford it. It’s harder to do well without textbooks.”

The initiative is part of a trend among American colleges and universities. At UC Riverside, the project has saved students an estimated $507,250 since fall 2015.

A 2014 survey of UC Riverside students found that only one-third of respondents bought or rented a textbook for courses in their major all of the time; 80 percent of the students who did not buy or rent a textbook for any course cited cost as the reason. Textbook costs will average approximately $1,700 per student this year, UC Riverside officials estimate. According to NBC News, textbook costs have risen more than 1,000 percent since 1977.

“The majority of faculty here recognize the burden of textbook costs per student,” said Ann Frenkel, deputy university librarian and a member of the task force. “We hear about students not buying food for a week to buy books, or buying food and using library reserve textbooks when they’re available. That creates learning inequalities.”

Innovative funding model

The project may be the first collaboration of faculty, librarians, and information technologists in the country that is also supported financially by students, Frenkel said.

The initiative grew out of Takeshita’s participation on the California Educational Resources Council, which the Legislature created in 2012 to address textbook affordability in the California Community Colleges, the California State University, and the University of California. Legislators directed the council to establish the California Digital Open Source Library, administered by the CSU system, to make free, open educational resource materials available online. The council disbanded in May 2016.

The UC Riverside initiative is a collaborative project between faculty, the UC Riverside Library, and the Department of Computing & Communications (C&C). The initiative compensates faculty and departments who convert a course or series of courses from a conventional expensive textbook to affordable course material with funds that can be used for research or teaching. Awardees are selected based on the availability of high-quality, free textbooks or alternative materials, and the faculty member’s commitment to the cause.

C&C provided $18,000 in 2015 for faculty grants, and the Student Technology Fee Advisory Committee joined the effort in 2016 by allocating $150,000, to be disbursed over three years.

Lewis Luartz, a Ph.D. candidate in political science who is a member of the student technology committee, wishes the initiative had begun while he was an undergraduate at UC Riverside.

“About 90 percent of the time I bought books,” he recalled. “I usually bought older editions, or I would borrow them from a library. The only reason I could buy as many books as I did was because I had two jobs. If not for the second job, I wouldn’t have bought most of my books.”

As a teaching assistant in undergraduate political science courses now, Luartz said he is sensitive to the financial choices many students face. “These students probably have one or two jobs. Some don’t have money to eat. I can’t say to them, did you buy the book, did you read the book, without thinking that this student might be struggling.”

Opportunities for more current, relevant material

Faculty who have adopted open educational resource materials say students are grateful. And the use of journal articles and other online resources provides opportunities for more current, or for previously neglected, material.

History professor Dana Simmons teaches a world history course that relies entirely on open-access materials, including works of World War I scholars, Cold War documents, speeches, and the Internet Modern History Sourcebook, among others.

Simmons said that many of her students were getting material from Wikipedia whether or not it was assigned. “The quality of articles on the Internet varies vastly,” she said. “If that’s where students are, let’s find the good stuff and point them to it.”

Psychology professor Rachel Wu said replacing the standard textbook for an introductory psychology course saved students approximately $100,000. She relies on journal articles for another course, which enables her to provide the most current research and emphasize trends that textbooks may not reflect.

“With research articles we can talk about flaws in methodologies or what researchers overcame in their project,” she said. “This is a different model of teaching, where the articles are more important than the textbook. If you do it well, it may be more beneficial to students than learning from a textbook, because it teaches critical thinking skills.”