Scaling Investment in Open Textbooks Through the Omnibus Bill

The Omnibus bill introduces a new Open Textbook Pilot, investing in projects that create or expand the use of open educational sources.

For the first time in nearly a decade, Congress has significantly boosted federal education spending through its $1.3 trillion spending bill. In addition to the good news for early education advocates, legislators have done more than increase higher education spending—the omnibus bill also introduces several new programs. One of these new programs aims to address the issue of college affordability in an unconventional way: through targeting the rapidly growing expense of college textbooks.

The new Open Textbook Pilot supports projects that create or expand the use of openly licensed college texts with the joint goal of reducing student costs and maintaining or improving student learning outcomes, something New America also recommended in our recent comments to the Senate education committee on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. While the investment is small, receiving just $5 million, its payoff for students could be huge. “Of the costs that students face, textbooks are a significant barrier,” said Nicole Allen, director of open education with SPARC, a membership organization representing college and university libraries. According to SPARC, similar efforts at the state level have saved students over $10 for every dollar spent. “Investing in grant programs for OER is one of the smartest investments that Congress can make,” said Allen.

Despite the potential of this kind of program, the explanatory statement accompanying the omnibus bill is slim on specific details about how exactly the pilot will work. To get a better idea of what Congress intends for this new competitive program, however, a good place to start looking is the Affordable College Textbook Act of 2017.

This past fall, Congress reintroduced the Affordable College Textbook Act in both the House and Senate, marking its fifth attempt to create a competitive grant program to fund open textbooks. Open textbooks are one example of open educational resources, or OER—content that is released using an open content license (such as Creative Commons’ open licenses), making the content free to use, adapt, and share online. This legislation provides greater insight into the rationale for the newly created Open Textbook Pilot, the kinds of activities that new grants could cover, and a framework for how the U.S. Department of Education should think about evaluating applications.

As the cost of college textbooks has rapidly grown, a growing number of professors have started considering the benefits of open textbooks for their students. Current cost estimates from the College Board for books and supplies has reached $1,420—the GAO found that over a ten year period from 2002 to 2012 alone, textbook prices rose over 82 percent. While this number may not seem like a lot, for the typical community college student, this can amount to nearly a quarter of the cost of attendance. At the same time, a 2017 report from the Babson Survey Research Group showed that nearly a third of faculty indicate awareness of OER, and the number of professors using open textbooks has nearly doubled, growing from 5 to 9 percent in one year.

According to the new spending bill, the open textbooks pilot should “support projects at institutions of higher education that create new open textbooks or expand their use.” The Affordable College Textbook Act specifies the kinds of activities that this may entail, including:

  1. Providing faculty professional development, which may include searching for and reviewing open textbooks.
  2. Creating or adapting OER, especially open textbooks.
  3. Adapting and improving OER, including making materials accessible for students with disabilities.
  4. Evaluating open textbooks in terms of student cost savings and impact on learning outcomes.
  5. Establishing partnerships between institutions and other organizations, including for-profit and nonprofit organizations, to support any of these activities.

The spending bill also specifies that the pilot program should give special consideration to projects that demonstrate clear potential to achieve student cost savings, both at the grantee institution and at other institutions of higher education. The Affordable College Textbook Act highlights several additional considerations for evaluating proposed projects and selecting grantees, including evaluating an institution’s demonstrated capacity to create high-quality resources, focusing on high-enrollment courses at the institution, and making a clear plan for marketing and distributing open textbooks to faculty and students.

As the U.S. Department of Education moves to turn the Open Textbooks Pilot signed into law today into a reality, it can draw upon its previous experiences implementing programs that have supported the development of OER in higher education, including through the $2 billion Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training program and the Department’s First in the World grants. Further, this Open Textbook Pilot coincides with the Department’s current efforts to implement its open licensing rule, which requires that all educational materials produced through competitive programs are released using an open content license. The Department can also look to states that have already implemented similar programs, including Washington, California, Ohio, and New York. And the Department should also evaluate opportunities to expand OER in PreK-12 education—for example, through helping states and districts improve curriculum through OER using the new increase in funding for Title IV of ESSA, which block-grants dollars to support a range of activities including technology and digital materials.

“The move [to implement the Open Textbooks Pilot] could save students more than $50 million—an important step toward alleviating the huge burden of paying for college,” Kaitlyn Vitez, director of the Campaign to Save Student Aid at U.S. PIRG, wrote earlier this week. While advocates for textbook affordability are celebrating this early effort from Congress to fund open textbooks, they will certainly be back next year to push for more permanent funding—Congress will need to act if it wants to sustain this work in the future.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]