Free Textbooks Are Not Always Free: New Study Analyzes OER’s Costs to Colleges

When professors shift to assigning Open Educational Resources instead of publisher-produced textbooks, the move typically saves students money (and it can be a significant amount). But OER is not free, since it costs money to develop the materials, takes time for professors to evaluate and adopt them, and typically involves other campus-support services as well.A report released last week gives perhaps the most detailed accounting of the pricetag to colleges looking to make signiciant moves to OER.The report by SRI International and rpk GROUP analyzed a project led by Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit focused on supporting community-college students, to encourage two-year colleges to start OER degrees (meaning every course in a degree track assigns the materials, so that the savings adds up for students). That project, started in 2016, involves 38 community colleges that have switched to OER in a total of 385 courses, supported by $9.8-million in grants. The new report details what the colleges spent on their efforts and where the money went, as well as the benefits.Across the participating schools, the bulk of the money went to developing the course materials. While it is popular to complain about the high sticker price of commercial textbooks, it does take time for professors to research and write or compile them. So when colleges develop their own OER materials, it’s worth accounting for the time spent by professors. At colleges that Achieving the Dream worked with, about half of the cost of the OER degrees it supported went to stipends for professors and instructors, who needed to take time away from teaching in order to write the texts or otherwise adapt their courses. At five of the participating community colleges, the report found that it cost an average of $11,700 per course to build the OER materials.The rest of the cost went to support administrative costs, such as developing policies, processes and standards for using OER materials.Another cost to colleges of moving to OER degrees, the report notes, is lost revenue by college bookstores. The participating colleges lost an average of $14,000 per institution from textbook sales. But the report called that impact “minimal,” noting that this amount typically represents less than one percent of a college’s total revenue.Students clearly benefited from the efforts. “We estimate that on average students saved between $66 and $121 per course,” the report said. A survey conducted as part of the report found that 42 percent of the students said the OER courses had a “significant impact” on their ability to afford college.The report said the most pressing concern for the colleges that participated was how to financially support and expand these efforts, which were initially supported through grants. At least five of the colleges added OER fees for students to bring in support, and the report said that they may be able to tap into existing technology fees.The program studied in the report is part of a larger project called Achieving the Dream’s OER Degree Initiative, funded by grants from a variety of sources including the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation & Affiliates, the Shelter Hill Foundation, and the Speedwell Foundation.Disclosure: EdSurge has received grant funding from the Gates Foundation.