Open textbooks cheapest option, new study says

Open textbooks are the best answer to the plight of cash-strapped college students, according to a study released last week by the national Student Public Interest Research Groups.

Openly licensed textbooks — books that are available in print or digital formats — are affordable alternatives to the current printed and bound format, said the report, titled A Cover to Cover Solution.

The survey of more than 1,400 students found that open textbooks accommodate students’ preferences toward the readability and functionality of the printed format and the convenience of the digital one.

Digital textbooks also appeal to the financial concerns of students — and their parents — by reducing average textbook costs by 80 percent.

David Mittelstein, the USC co-chair of the California Public Interest Research Group, said the report is a reaction to the increasingly high costs of textbooks.

“The reason we made the study in the first place is the cost of textbooks is out of control,” he said. “The average student is spending about $900 per year and prices have risen more than four times during inflation in the last two decades.”

Pertusati Bookstore Manager Raymond McDermott said he believes that open textbooks will not prove to be a viable solution because students might still prefer print books. He doesn’t see teachers using open textbooks in the near future.

“I think [open textbooks] will fit a niche,” McDermott said. “But I don’t think they will change the entire textbook industry. They might replace textbooks in [general education] classes, but I don’t really see them in high-level graduate classes.”

The study was released after federal regulations from the Higher Education Opportunity Act — passed in 2008 by former President George W. Bush — were put into effect on July 1. These new regulations oblige schools to provide a full list of the assigned textbooks to students during class registration.

The act affects publishers by requiring them to disclose the prices and revision information of the books they market to instructors. Another provision prevents publishers from bundling textbooks with various CDs, booklets and other optional media often not required or utilized by the professor.

Letticia Lee, a freshman majoring in environmental studies, said she spent $550 for her textbooks at the bookstore this semester, but she was able to purchase one of her books on the Internet.

“It wasn’t available at the bookstore, so I bought it online,” she said, “It was much cheaper.”

Lee and her parents said they weren’t informed about the new regulations or about other available alternatives, such as renting textbooks or buying them used online. They are skeptical, however, about the concept of open textbooks.

“We’re going to wait and see how technology develops,” said her father, Ray Lee.

The Student PIRGs found that most students shared the views of Lee and her parents. The print format was preferred by 75 percent of students surveyed.

Shamoiya Washington, a freshman majoring in political science, said she rented all of her textbooks this semester from textbook rental site

“I prefer to have the book in front of me,” she said. “But it depends on the price. If there’s a big difference, I’d go for it.”

Nicole Allen, the textbooks advocate for Student PIRGs and the campaign director for Make Textbooks Affordable, believes that the reason open textbooks will succeed in the market is because of students like Washington who want affordable, printed material.

“Students generally do prefer printed books,” she said, “But I think that’s the great thing about open textbooks. They will provide students with the option of print or digital formats. It’s easy to dismiss open textbooks, and it’s going to take innovation to make it work.”

McDermott cites the high cost of manufacturing a textbook — the costs it takes to pay artists, writers, researchers and other contributors — as another reason open textbooks will not successfully replace printed and bound books.

Publishers of open textbooks, he said, are only surviving with the help of a large venture capital.

“No one has shown that open source is a financially sustainable solution,” McDermott said.

Allen, however, said more and more money is being invested in the format.

“At the bottom of the economic downturn, people are investing millions of dollars into this company,” she said. “They wouldn’t do that if they didn’t think it was a viable solution.”

Allen said she advises students to get the word out and contact their elected officials to bring the need for open textbooks to their attention.

“Change isn’t going to happen overnight,” Allen said.