By Justin Chapman
In a historic win for community college students across California, on July 27 Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 132, the 2021-2022 state budget, which allocates a staggering $115 million to make textbooks and other instructional materials more affordable if not free, in addition to a number of other ambitious education programs.
The funding amount for the Zero-Textbook-Cost (ZTC) Degree Grant Program is far beyond what advocates anticipated. ZTC began in 2016 as a pilot program with $5 million in seed funding from Proposition 98, which determines community college and K-12 funding. Those revenues grew by more than $18 billion from mostly federal funds since January, when the governor’s budget proposal contained a fraction of the amounts for education programs included in the current proposal.
ZTC degrees are associate degrees or career technical education certificates comprised entirely of courses that eliminate additional textbook and material fees through the use of high quality, no-cost learning content with an emphasis on open educational resources (OER). The program helps students finish their degree programs without paying anything for costly textbooks and other instructional materials.
“Seen as one battle in the fight to reduce the total cost of college, majors with free textbooks can be particularly meaningful to low-income students,” Mikhail Zinshteyn wrote in CalMatters. “And unlike state support for food, housing, and other essential student needs, investing in free or low-cost virtual textbooks has a multiplier effect, because one such textbook can be used by hundreds or thousands of students.”
The Michelson Center for Public Policy was instrumental in highlighting the importance of this program as the state considered whether to implement it again this year.
Governor Newsom revised the budget proposal in May and added the $115 million to a program that saves students money and boosts their performance. The proposal is part of his $100 billion California Comeback Plan, the biggest economic recovery package in the Golden State’s history.
In January, Newsom called the $3.2 billion textbook industry a “racket” and added that “we in California have an obligation to disrupt that entire system nationwide.” In May, he added, “We want to deal with the racket… that is the textbook industry that is abusive to common sense and mindset in terms of the usury nature of the costs associated with textbooks that makes no sense whatsoever except to those that are the beneficiaries of huge rewards on the backs of our children.”
The move came after a coalition of educators, students, and policy experts called on legislators to fully fund the program with the message that the cost of textbooks should not be a barrier to success and completion of degrees for California’s 2.1 million community college students. The Michelson Center for Public Policy was instrumental in highlighting the importance of this program as the state considered whether to implement it again this year.
The need for this funding is clear. Recent surveys have shown that 25% of college students needed to work extra hours to afford course materials, and 19% said that they decided what course to take based on the cost of materials. Those costs forced one in nine students surveyed to skip meals. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the stressors that students face.
Stephen Kodur, former president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges, was among those who had to choose ZTC courses in order to further his education.
“Textbook costs can add up and be a stumbling block for many students trying to earn their degree. If more classes have ZTC offerings, then more students will have an opportunity to succeed.”
“As a returning adult learner to the California community college system, I was forced to choose classes offering ZTC because of the steep cost of textbooks for my required courses,” Kodur said. “Had I chosen to take alternate courses and pay for these textbooks then I would have had to choose something else in my life not to pay for, like my rent, utilities, car insurance, or cell phone bill. Since I was able to take ZTC courses, textbook costs were one less barrier to my education.”
Kodur said the $115 million earmarked for ZTC in the governor’s budget would go a long way to help students finish their education.
“Textbook costs can add up and be a stumbling block for many students trying to earn their degree, with the average cost of a single textbook being over $85, according to EdSource,” he said. “If more classes have ZTC offerings, then more students will have an opportunity to succeed.”
California Community Colleges is the largest higher education system in the United States and charges the lowest community college tuition rates at $46 per unit, making the cost of textbooks disproportionately more expensive in terms of students’ overall expenses. The cost of textbooks and other instructional materials regularly exceeds tuition itself.
“With seven in 10 California Community College students experiencing food insecurity, housing insecurity, or homelessness, this year’s funding of $115 million for the ZTC degree program has the opportunity to be truly transformative for students across the state, particularly our most vulnerable students who are still paying over $700 per year on learning materials,” said Phillip Kim, CEO of the Michelson 20MM Foundation.
In a June 7 letter to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins, the coalition of educators, students, and policy experts wrote that the ZTC degree program “has established a strong foundation for growth and furthered positive impacts for successful student outcomes. These graduates will be essential to rebuilding our economy.” The letter was signed by Dr. Gary Michelson of Michelson Philanthropies, Debbie Raucher of John Burton Advocates for Youth, Karen Stout of Achieving the Dream, Laura Keane of uAspire, Dr. Cable Green of Creative Commons, Emily Rusch of CALPIRG, Kodur, and the leaders of many other educational advocacy organizations.
“In a system where textbooks cost more than tuition at a time when students are struggling with food and housing insecurity, they can ill afford to be taken advantage of,” Michelson said. “The governor heard their cries for relief, and his proposal will not only address this crisis now but well into the future.”
The ZTC program was originally created in 2016 with $5 million in seed funding with the goal of reducing the overall cost of education for students and decreasing the time it takes them to complete their degree. The initial investment generated $42 million in savings across the 23 colleges that received implementation grants, a more than 800% return on investment.
The program created 37 degree pathways and more than 31,000 students were able to enroll in ZTC courses during the first three years of implementation. Observers believe the governor’s new proposal could produce an estimated 240 ZTC degree and certificate pathways, a nearly seven-fold increase.
20MM has been dedicated to improving access, affordability, and student success in postsecondary education for more than a decade. The foundation seeded the largest nonprofit open education resources (OER) publisher, OpenStax. The Michelson Center on Public Policy were strong advocates for refunding the ZTC program on behalf of all of California’s community college students. Learn more at 20mm.org.