New Senate Bill Aims to Lower the Price of College Textbooks

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Twelve hundred and fifty dollars. That is the average number college students pay for their textbooks each year. With that money, you could also buy five hundred and ten venti Starbucks coffees, feed a family of four for two months, or buy a plane ticket to Fiji.

Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Al Franken (D-MN), and Angus King (I-ME) are putting forth a bill called the “Affordable College Textbook Act.” Representatives Kyrsten Sinema and Jared Polis are also presenting a parallel bill in the House. According to SPARC.org this act “seeks to reduce the cost of textbooks at U.S. colleges and universities by expanding the use of open textbooks (and other Open Educational Resources) that everyone can use, adapt and share freely.” In other words, the act wants to promote the use of Open Source textbooks, which are free to students, over the usage of traditional and costly textbooks.

Though this bill seems like a small fix to the problem of unreasonable college tuition, it does have immediate implications for students. On a group call with the senators in question, among other people working on the bill, Senator Franken recounts that “I’ve had students tell me, and it is not that unusual, that they sell their blood to pay the rent. And sometimes they make the choice between buying a textbook and not buying a textbook because of their rent.” Students sometimes go to drastic lengths to get the education they need.

Senator Durbin noted that “textbook costs are one of the most overlooked barriers to college affordability and access and one of the main drivers of debt.” Many scholarships do not take into account the cost of books and focus on room and board. While the latter is quite important, it is those sometimes forgotten costs that can bar students from successfully attending college. The senator also stated that over the past decade, from 2006-2016, the U.S. Bureau Labor of Statistics price index showed that consumer prices for college textbooks increased by almost ninety percent. Textbook prices are rising eight times faster than that of inflation according to US PIRG (Public Interest Research Group). This is an astronomical increase that is almost unprecedented in other fields.

An Open Source textbook is essentially the same as a traditionally printed one. However, instead of the price being curated by publishers and revised editions coming out every twelve months, the open sourced textbooks are free to use for classes. Senator King states that “we are in a world now where there is so much open source information. It is the packaging part, the collating of the truthing of these various sources [that needs to happen]. That is what I think is cool about this bill. It will allow a kind of creativity around the country in how we get the info into a format that students can use that will be cheaper.”

Successfully using Open Source Textbooks is seen in practice at the University of Minnesota. There, the university uses some of their grant money to pay professors and some more money to entice the professors to write a book in this format. Senator Franken reminds us that “there’s all this pressure on people in academia to be published, well this is a way to be published.” We all know the phrase “publish or perish” and with universities encouraging their faculty to use this new method, there is more incentive to have Open Source books on the market.

There are other pieces of legislation in motion that will help combat the high price of college. Senator Elizabeth Warren is reintroducing a statute that would allow students to refinance their loans (student loans are among the only loans that at this time cannot be refinanced). Senator Franken has also has a bi-partisan bill that would require colleges to put the total cost of their experience on the front page of their website.

There are some interesting new ideas out there to make colleges a lot more affordable to students, but there is still a long way to go.

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