The conversation around college affordability often centers on tuition and fees, but as Corley Dennison, vice chancellor of academic affairs for the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission (WVHEPC), is quick to point out – out-of-pocket costs such as textbooks and and other course materials are the straw that break many students’ backs.
“It’s been a problem for a long time,” said Dennison. “Even at the community college level, think about a single mom or someone that’s trying to get a certification to get a better job. They’ve had to make these sacrifices and now, all of the sudden, they realize they have to pay three- or four- or five-hundred dollars in textbooks. They’re not ready for it. They don’t have that kind of cash on hand.”
The national average for textbooks costs has skyrocketed in recent years, according to the Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs). A report produced by the independent group pointed to data from the College Board which shows, on average, students spend $1,200 on textbooks annually.
Expensive textbooks are as much an equity issue as an affordability one. As a largely rural state, West Virginia has many first-generation college students and students from low-income households.
“What happens a lot of times is families hear about tuition. They don’t factor in other costs of higher education, especially if they don’t have a lot experience with higher education. Sometimes, families are literally slammed with the cost of textbooks.”
As a result, students are forced to start courses without the required materials, either waiting to get the necessary funds to purchase them or never purchasing them at all, which can threaten their chances of success in the classroom. In the same Student PIRGs report, a survey of more than 2,000 students found that of the 65% of students that had decided against buying a textbook because it was too expensive - 94% were concerned it would hurt their grade in a course. More than half of the students felt significant concern about their grade.
Dennison recalls, during his days at Marshall University, faculty being asked to contribute older editions of the textbooks that they were using in class. These books were then left at the library’s reference desk so students could access them and avoid the risk of falling behind in the “two or three weeks before they got a [financial aid refund] check.”
It was students, specifically student government associations, who prevailed upon the West Virginia legislature to address the issue of costly textbooks in 2019, leading to the passage of House Bill 2853. The bill calls for state agencies to encourage and facilitate use of open education resources (OER), which it defines as “teaching, learning and resource materials in any medium, digital or otherwise, that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits low cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.” HB 2853 charged the WVHEPC with setting up a program of competitive bids to encourage faculty to adopt OER.
“So, that’s exactly what we did,” said Dennison. “We worked with Student-Ready Strategies, and we had an OER workshop in September. We had over 120 participants, faculty and librarians.”
Faculty were then invited to apply for a $1,000 grant to adopt existing open educational resources or create new ones for a course by Fall 2021. A total of 75 faculty members were selected as grantees and notified in early October. They will receive the grant funds from their institutions at the end of the semester in which the OER is implemented. These faculty are also committed to administering a student feedback survey at the conclusion of the semester to evaluate the OER’s effectiveness.
WVHEPC intends to meet with provosts and registrars in the coming weeks to determine how to best ensure courses that utilize OER will be easily identifiable in course catalogs. Exactly how successful this initiative is – success that will be measured in money saved from textbooks not purchased – won’t be known until the end of the Fall 2021 semester. Dennison says strong faculty support for the effort already represents one positive outcome.
“It’s not like we had to go out and say, ‘you really need to do this, this is something you need to do.’ Faculty quickly saw the advantages for the students.”
Not only do faculty see the benefits of offering OER, they are painfully aware of the need to help alleviate some of the burden on students. One faculty member described this need in their grant application:
“As a professor from a working class background in which money was always something of a struggle, seeing and hearing about what 21st century college/university students in Southern West Virginia put themselves and their families through – financially, emotionally, physically, mentally etc. – as they pursue the higher education that will transform their lives for the better, I am utterly heartbroken. Rather than be paralyzed by that heartbreak, I want to do something tangible about it. I see bringing OER materials into my classes as one way that I can do something ‘real’ to lessen at least a little of the (especially financial) burden on my students.”
Another OER workshop and second round of grants is already in the works for Spring 2021. Grantees from both the first and second round will be invited to join a community of practice, where faculty can add links to online resources they find, ask questions, learn best practices and tips from their peers, and ultimately, find strength in numbers.
“We really want to stimulate a community among the people that are participating in the OER program in the hopes that it will really continue to grow and ingrain the program in higher education in West Virginia.”
Dennison acknowledges that while not all courses will be able to switch to OER, many will, saving students hundreds of dollars each semester and moving toward a more equitable, student-ready system.