San Marcos,
14:17 PM

CALMing Down Textbook Prices

By David Ogul

Cal State San Marcos is at the forefront of a nationwide movement to lower soaring textbook costs, helping hundreds of students save a total of $414,000 since launching an ambitious new program a little more than a year ago.

Under the Cougars Affordable Learning Materials (CALM) project, professors are encouraged to look for more affordable alternatives—including online resources—in lieu of pricey new textbooks that can cost several hundred dollars each.

“It’s a great program and an excellent opportunity for professors to re-examine how much they’re asking their students to invest in course materials,” said Terri Metzger, who organizes the Oral Communications program at CSUSM and has been working with communication professors in seeking more affordable alternatives.

A CALM homepage on the CSUSM website provides a myriad of links to what are known as Open Education Resources, including MERLOT, a California State University project with portals to free online learning materials, and Boundless, which offers e-books, quizzes and PowerPoints for instructors in courses ranging from accounting to U.S. history.

A key component of CALM is making professors more aware of textbook costs and urging them to find less expensive textbooks that don’t dilute from the quality of education. Many professors are provided grants to help defray the cost of searching for open source materials.

“Looking for open source materials can be very time consuming, so we want to provide our instructors with all the help we can,” said Susan Wilson, an instructional developer who works with faculty to rework their curriculum and help them find lower-cost alternatives.

Metzger said that when she first heard of the effort while leading a team of faculty members looking to update course materials with the latest edition of “The Art of Public Speaking,” she was shocked to learn of the textbook’s $130 price tag.

“It’s a great textbook, but that’s a lot of money for a student to pay for one book for just one class,” she said. “We had been using that book for so long that we would just reorder it whenever a new edition came out. When I saw the price I thought, `Oh my God, that’s horrible.’”

Faculty settled on an alternate text, “Public Speaking: Choices and Responsibilities,” which cost less than half the price.

“It’s a fabulous book and an excellent fit for what we, as faculty members, want our students to learn,” Metzger said. The text, though not as comprehensive as “The Art of Public Speaking,” has been supplemented with YouTube videos and online tutorials created by other educational institutions.

Professors are more than pleased, which is not surprising. A recent BABSON Survey Research Group study found that three-fourths of professors using open source materials say they are just as good if not better than traditional resources.

The CALM program grew from a larger effort that the California State Universities system launched in 2010 called Affordable Learning Solutions. The initiatives come as more and more students are being weighed down by the rising cost of textbooks.

“I’m funding my education through loans, and the loans barely cover tuition,” said CSUSM senior Katie Boggs, who serves as chair of CSUSM’s Associated Students Inc. and pays up to $500 per semester for textbooks alone. “Fortunately, I have family who have been able to help me out with textbooks, but a lot of students don’t have that option. A lot of students I know are sharing books, or will even go through a whole semester without even buying one.”

In fact, a recent survey by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that nearly two-thirds of college students didn’t purchase a textbook because of the cost. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that college textbook prices jumped a total of 82 percent from 2002 to 2012, almost triple the increase in the cost of living during the same period. And the U.S. Department of Education reports the average student at a four-year, public university is paying $1,255 annually for books and supplies.

Yet too many professors are unaware of the costs. “Awareness and adoption of open educational resources (OER) has yet to enter the mainstream of higher education,” the BABSON study concluded.

That, however, is quickly changing at CSUSM through the CALM initiative.