Lawmakers push for free online textbooks

open text book with pen and ruler

The Affordable College Textbook Act would offer grants to universities that develop free, online textbooks.


Free college textbooks for public use online — that’s what several lawmakers are supporting with the Affordable College Textbook Act.

“For students and families that are already struggling to afford a college education, it’s not just an expensive textbook anymore — it’s a serious barrier,” said Ethan Senack, the federal higher education advocate for U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), at a press conference for campus newspapers Oct. 8.

The Government Accounting Office reported that new textbook prices have increased 82 percent between 2002 and 2012.

“As the cost of those textbooks increases, the harder it becomes to afford them, which only forces students to reach deeper into their pockets or risk jeopardizing their academic careers,” said Sen. Angus King, Maine.

A U.S. PIRG Education Fund survey found that 65 percent of college students skip buying a textbook because of its cost; 94 percent of those students were concerned about how that decision might affect their grade.

Sens. Dick Durbin, Illinois, Al Franken, Minnesota, and King are supporting the Affordable College Textbook Act to encourage open-source textbooks.

Introduced Oct. 8, the bill would offer competitive grants to colleges and universities to create high-quality open-source textbooks. Reps. Ruben Hinojosa, Texas, and Jared Polis, Colorado, filed a companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The open license would allow anyone to use, modify and share the material online.

The bill includes:

• grants for open-source textbook pilot programs, with priority to programs that help students save the most money

• open textbooks and educational materials easily accessible to the public

• reports of the legislation’s effectiveness in helping students save money

• improvements for pre-existing textbook sale requirements required by the 2010 Higher Education Opportunity Act

• a mandatory report update to Congress from the Government Accountability Office on college textbook price trends within the following two years.

The legislators said they hope the bill will follow the success of a University of Illinois project that used $150,000 in federal funds to create an open-source textbook, published electronically in 2012.

Twenty-five faculty members from the three campuses — 13 from UIC — collaborated to publish the book, Sustainability: A Comprehensive Foundation. The textbook, used for introductory environmental sustainability courses, took a year to complete, compared to the usual seven years.

Sohail Murad, adjunct professor of chemical engineering, wrote a chapter on geothermal energy. “This book is available wherever you are, you don’t have to carry it with you and it’s free,” Murad said in a 2012 UIC News interview.

Since then, more than 60,000 students have accessed the book. “It turns out to be wildly popular,” Durbin said.

The legislators urge students to contact university faculty, administration and local representatives to voice their support.

“We have to understand that the traditional textbook market is changing. Let’s make a change for the benefit of these students,” Durbin said.

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