Open/Alternative Textbook Initiative tackles high cost of college textbooks

Textbook are a growing expense for college students, so some are moving towards an online alternative. (Photo Illustration by Parker Robb | Collegian Media Group)

The high price of college textbooks combined with housing and tuition costs continues to leave many university students struggling. According to The College Board, the average full-time student at a four-year university spent over $1200 on college textbooks and supplies this past school year alone.

“[Students] put all these sheets together, they’re figuring out how to pay for school and stuff,” Jordan Kiehl, student body president and junior in industrial engineering, said. “You don’t really think about that as part of your cost, I think, especially as a freshman. I was definitely not prepared to go into my classes and for them to say, okay, you need this $200 textbook.”

This is where the K-State Open/Alternative Textbook Initiative comes in, a program created in 2013 to encourage professors to adapt their curriculum in a way that doesn’t require the use of a traditional textbook.

The initiative instead provides a grant of up to $5000 to participating faculty, giving many professors the incentive to write their own textbooks, use open library and university resources or simply create their own learning materials to use in class instead of the traditional textbook.

Andrew Bennett, co-founder of the initiative and professor of mathematics, said the initiative encourages professors to think outside the box when it comes to creating their own learning materials.

“One thing about the open/alternative textbook is not everything is a textbook,” Bennett said. “In a world where people have things online, maybe a book isn’t the best way to teach this subject. We’ve had people come in with interesting ideas of ‘I think this is what will work best in my class,’ and we try to fund it.”

A $10 per student fee is associated with classes that use alternative/open textbook options, with 90 percent of that fee going back to the department. The remainder goes towards helping fund the initiative.

Despite the additional fee, Bennet said the use of alternate textbooks in classrooms ultimately saves students a lot money.

“The students benefit from not having to pay money for the textbooks,” Bennett said. “It is something where we are, this year, going to save students over two million dollars.”

Besides saving money by not purchasing textbooks, Kiehl said another benefit of this program is students knowing the alternative material will be tailored to the course, versus using a textbook that doesn’t always follow the class curriculum.

“It really makes sure your professor is using a textbook that aligns with their course and what they want to teach,” Kiehl said. “You know it’s exactly what they want to be teaching, and it follows exactly the curriculum that you’re learning in the course.”

Kiehl also said the idea of saving money on textbooks could potentially make all the difference for some prospective students as they decide between universities.

“If we have all these courses that are open/alternative textbook, I think that’s a big selling point for incoming students,” Kiehl said. “That would be a big savings even if my tuition that costs a little bit more here, being able to say I don’t have to pay for textbooks.”

Brian Lindshield, co-founder and associate professor in the department of food, nutrition, dietetics and health, said he hopes that as the initiative grows, it will spread to larger, high-enrollment classes. This in turn will provide even more funding to keep the initiative going.

“There were some other universities that had done this before us, but they had much smaller [grant] amounts, like max $1000 or $2000,” Lindshield said. “They weren’t getting to the really large, high-enrollment courses. Part of how we designed this was that we wanted to provide a little larger rewards hoping that we could get into those massive courses that lots of students take, because that’s where you get the greatest impact and return on investment.”

Bennett said making the switch to open alternative learning resources won’t be easy, but he believes that in an age of digital communication, it is where the future of classroom resources are headed.

“The students would go in and have things available on their phone, say at any time,” Bennett said. “It’s not perfect. We’re all adapting, but I think we’re moving much faster towards this than most people. It’s where everyone is going to end up.”