A Nonprofit Publisher Puts Another Nail in the $200 Textbook Coffin

OpenStax believes its free books can save students millions.

In his latest State of the Union address, President Obama asked America's colleges and universities to get serious about making higher education more affordable. There are many ways to cut costs at colleges, one of which is lowering tuition fees. But part of easing the financial burden on students is reducing the amount of money they have to shell out every semester for textbooks. OpenStax College, a new nonprofit recently launched at Rice University, hopes to do just that.

According to Inside Higher Education, OpenStax plans to compete with pricey $200 hardback texts from for-profit publishers by offering digital books for five common introductory classes for free, starting with sociology and physics texts this spring. OpenStax is beginning with introductory texts because the information in them is relatively basic and less likely to change year to year. Publishers are frequently accused of filling their coffers by updating textbook editions at random and then convincing professors to adopt the new version. If the OpenStax plan works, the multi-billion-dollar textbook industry could be in trouble.

J. Bruce Hildebrand, the executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, acknowledged that free books would be "difficult" for publishers to compete with. However, says Hildebrand, "the quality of the materials and whether they enable students to learn, pass their course and get their degree," is what really counts.

One of the biggest obstacles the open textbook movement has faced is that its books are perceived to be inferior by academia; there are questions about whether the texts have truly been subjected to the same kind of rigorous academic peer review process that traditional publishers use. OpenStax squashes quality and accuracy concerns by ensuring that each text goes through an 18-month peer review process. The fact that the nonprofit is backed by Rice will also help enhance its scholarly reputation.

Similar to Washington state's Open Course Library, which hopes to make its open textbooks available nationwide, OpenStax isn't limiting the use of its textbooks to students attending Rice. They estimate that if they can manage to provide even 10 percent of college textbooks nationally, students could save $90 million over the next five years. In the week since OpenStax's launch, only a handful of schools have signed up to participate. But if they're able to add more texts and gain a reputation as a legitimate provider, that number is sure to soar. And college students could have some more Top Ramen money.

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