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Open Educational Resources Level the Playing Field for California’s Community College Students

Aug 12, 2021 | 20 Million Minds


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By Justin Chapman

California’s recent allocation of $115 million for free textbooks shows that the tide is turning against the dominant commercial textbook industry, but much more remains to be done to make a college education affordable and equitable for all of California’s students, according to a recent Michelson Philanthropies roundtable discussion featuring educators, students, administrators, and policymakers.

The roundtable featured James Glapa-Grossklag, Dean for Educational Technology, Learning Resources, and Distance Learning at College of the Canyons; Nicole Allen, Director of Open Education for the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC); Dr. Keith Curry, president and CEO of Compton College and the Compton Community College District; and Brianna Ross, Vice President for Regional Affairs at the Student Senate for California Community Colleges (SSCCC). Also in the roundtable were Dr. Gary K. Michelson, founder and co-chair of Michelson Philanthropies, and Phillip Kim, CEO of the Michelson 20 Million Minds (20MM) Foundation.

Geoff Baum, executive director of Michelson Philanthropies and former president of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors moderated the roundtable and set the stage by pointing out the challenges facing higher education in California, such as plunging enrollment in community colleges and the increasing obstacle of affordability. He said the 20MM Foundation has worked to promote solutions to the affordability issue, specifically around textbook costs.

“There has been a precipitous drop in enrollment in the community college system,” Baum said. “Where are those students going and why aren’t they back in the classroom? The University of California and California State University are having record demand and applications, so something’s not working right here. We think that the cost of textbooks is part of it, but it’s also an issue that is easily addressed. The solutions are there.”

‘We’re all in’

However, action is needed to implement those solutions. For example, Baum pointed out that Curry, who participated in the roundtable, is “a real champion statewide and a leader in this space who hasn’t waited for others to act but is taking bold steps right now on his campus.”

Curry announced during the roundtable that Compton College plans to have 100% of its courses offer open educational resources (OER) or Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) degree pathways by 2035. OER are freely available learning materials that can be copied, edited, and shared by students. Such materials serve students better than expensive, commercial textbooks.

“If you’re asking students to pick between food, housing, and textbooks, textbooks will never win,” he said. “When we talk about affordability, we have to meet the students where they’re at, and I truly believe that Zero Textbook Cost and OER is the wave of the future for community colleges as it relates to affordability for our students.”

Curry said the college will reach its goal by taking incremental steps: 25% of their courses will be OER/ZTC by 2023, 50% by 2027, and 75% by 2031.

“We have an ambitious goal, but we’re working with our faculty, the Academic Senate, and our bookstore to meet this goal,” he said. “We’re all in as it relates to Zero Textbook Cost and OER for our students. At Compton College, 64% of our students are Latinx and 23% are African American. In 2019, 56% of our students experienced food insecurity, 63% experienced housing insecurity, and 23% were homeless. Our students need as much support as possible.”

Brianna Ross noticed that she got A’s in courses that didn’t require her to purchase expensive textbooks and struggled in courses that had significant textbook costs.

Michelson pointed out that textbook prices have increased at three times the rate of inflation year over year from the 1970s until the mid-2010s. U.S. college students spent more than $3 billion on course materials last year.

“In a world brimming with knowledge and ideas, a cartel of just three companies now — Pearson, Cengage, and McGraw Hill — control roughly 80% of the college textbook market,” he said. “Over a decade ago, I became aware that many students who were doing well in community college but faced both housing and food insecurity were dropping out because they could not afford the cost of textbooks. Thankfully, lawmakers are taking steps to eliminate this affordability crisis.”

Last month, California legislators passed a budget that made historic investments to the state’s public higher education system, including the $115 million for the Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) degree program.

“The textbook publishing cartel has taken notice of OER’s dramatic success,” Michelson said. “The cartel has begun to market access codes through bulk purchasing agreements, called ‘inclusive access,’ ‘equitable access,’ or ‘first day access,’ where students are non-transparently and automatically billed for digitized rentals. Students are forced to opt out, rather than opt in, to pay for access to the materials needed to complete their courses.”

He explained that AB 403, the Fair Access to College Textbooks Act, jointly authored by Assembly members Ash Kalra, Rudy Salas, and Rob Bonta, would add consumer protection provisions to these automatic textbook billing agreements, allow opt in by students, and mandate the disclosure of the full amount of required fees to students during course registration.

‘Knocking down equity gaps in education’

Ross, who was a student at Irvine Valley College (IVC) and will be enrolling this fall at UC Riverside, said it was helpful that ZTC courses, of which there were many at IVC, were labeled as such when she registered for classes.

“When I was coming into my first year as a college student, I knew that buying expensive textbooks was just something you could not get out of,” she said. “For a writing course I took one year, I was surprised that I didn’t need to buy a bunch of different literature books or textbooks for the writing materials. My instructor actually provided a lot of packets and supplemental materials and we focused more on engaging lessons in the class that helped me to grow more as a writer and as a student.”

She noticed that she got A’s in courses that didn’t require her to purchase expensive textbooks and struggled in courses that had significant textbook costs.

She said the Student Senate for California Community Colleges (SSCCC) is thankful to the governor for allocating $115 million for ZTC, which will help many more students like her. 

“What really helps us go forward is prioritizing access to education and knocking down any equity gaps in education, which has a lot to do with the textbook costs,” she said.

“National studies show that when OER is utilized, the grades for all students go up, but particularly the grades for students who are from historically under-resourced communities.”

James Glapa Grossklag

Glapa-Grossklag, who is also an OER Fellow for the Michelson 20 Million Minds Foundation, said College of the Canyons where he works has long been a leader in adopting OER and supporting its faculty to be creative in using OER to relieve the cost burden of its students. The college offers its students multiple majors that don’t utilize commercial textbooks, ranging from sociology and counseling to early childhood education and water systems technology. 

“This past spring semester, 26% of our classes utilized OER in lieu of commercial textbooks,” he said. “We’re very proud of that, but that’s not nearly enough. We want to do more.”

He pointed out that their ZTC courses fill up sooner than their non-ZTC courses, demonstrating that students want more ZTC courses and see the value of those programs.

“We also know that classes in which OER is used show greater increases in the success and retention of our traditionally under-resourced populations, such as Latinx students, Pell-eligible students, and African American male students. That points out, for me, a real benefit or real promise of using OER. National studies show that when OER is utilized, the grades for all students go up, but particularly the grades for students who are from historically under-resourced communities.”

‘A new way of thinking about course materials’

Baum laid out the broader picture by highlighting Governor Newsom’s point that the textbook industry needs to be disrupted not only in California, but nationwide. He said the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), has been a leader in that national effort. Allen of SPARC said there has been a lot of movement on the national stage and by other states recently toward investing more in OER, but that California’s latest investment is “emblematic of a new way of thinking about course materials.”

She said that textbooks have always been seen as a commodity, but now course materials must start to be thought of as part of the digital infrastructure of a campus that’s worth investing in. 

“Obviously, students need to get in the door in the first place so covering tuition has to come first, but at the end of the day, students can’t learn from materials they can’t afford,” she added. “This is one piece of the college cost equation that we actually have a solution for: we can invest $1 and save students $10-20 potentially. But this isn’t just about cost savings, it’s also about keeping money in our communities, supporting creativity for faculty, and supporting ownership over academic freedom.

“Where’s the academic freedom for the student who can’t afford to go to school?”

Dr. Gary K. Michelson

She also addressed the misperception that textbook costs are not as big of a problem as they used to be, due in part to the traditional textbook publishers’ effective marketing around new digital materials being more affordable for students. That, she said, is just not true.

“All of the major publishers are out there promoting a model called ‘inclusive access’ that automatically adds the cost of digital textbooks to students’ tuition and fees, often without confirming their consent,” she said. “That makes textbooks appear less expensive if you look at the comparison between the digital and print price, but it actually works out to the same old ripoff in a new digital packaging. There’s a big difference between the OER model and the subscription models with short-term access that are being offered by publishers.”

Michelson said that part of the problem is that “the old guard is resisting the idea of providing these free resources to students under the shibboleth of academic freedom. Where’s the academic freedom for the student who can’t afford to go to school?”

He argued that while some educators resist OER, empowering professors to actually create the content that will become the open educational resources will go a long way in convincing them to support and use the material.

‘It’s not a fair fight’

Kim said these automatic billing contracts are one of the more dangerous developments, if not the most dangerous development, in the industry. He said it’s the responsibility of organizations like the 20MM Foundation and others, including the California Governor’s Office, to bring attention to these issues.

“The [$115 million] ZTC investment and other affordability measures are in direct conflict with what the publishers are hoping to set up here,” Kim said. “Their goal is to own the entire student experience. It’s tough to describe it any other way than ‘predatory behavior.’ It’s been a decade or so since there has been a real thorough assessment of what the publishing industry is doing in California, so we think it is time for that. We need to provide a platform for the true visionary leaders that are on the right side of history on this and help elevate the people who will drive the next phase of this movement.”

He called the recent state budget allocation for ZTC “visionary” and “historic” and said such a move means the state of California is trying to do the right thing for its students.

Dr. Keith Curry announced during the roundtable that Compton College plans to have 100% of its courses offer open educational resources (OER) or Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) degree pathways by 2035.

Michelson agreed that the major textbook publishers do not have the students’ interests at heart.

“These predatory pricing practices by this so-called textbook industry which no longer prints textbooks is an example of asymmetrical warfare,” he said. “They have the wealth and the assets to pursue their interests. They have armies of lawyers who draw up these documents, and for students it’s like bringing a knife to a gunfight. It’s not a fair fight.”

He made the case that someone needs to stand up for the students and that the government must get involved to protect them “because the students are still voiceless. There isn’t a powerful voice representing the students, and that is part of this problem. They are the victims. They don’t make the decision about which book to use and how much it costs, and that’s a bad model to begin with.”