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The Demise of the $200 Textbook


“The entrepreneurial process is not just about new companies, capital, and jobs. It’s also about fostering an ingenious human spirit and improving humankind.”

—The late Dr. Jeffry Timmons,” The Johnny Appleseed of Entrepreneurship Education,” Professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College, author and early advisor to Flat World Knowledge.

With the approach of the fall semester, the topic of the spiraling cost of higher education, textbooks, and related course materials will again be amplified by the media, policy-makers, administrators, educators, students, and families.

And it's no wonder. A single new college textbook may exceed $200. Prices over the last several years have been rising at more than two times the rate of inflation. According to the College Board, last year students at four-year public colleges spent an average of $1,122 on textbooks and supplies.

The skyrocketing cost of college textbooks threatens the mission of most public institutions: namely, to provide access to high-quality, affordable education. It also contributes to rising college drop-out rates when global competitiveness has never been more paramount. In a Public Agenda research report for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them, 60 percent of students surveyed said the cost of textbooks and other fees contributed to their decision not to continue with their college education.

The pain of textbook costs is not evenly distributed. Those at the bottom of the economic pyramid are of course impacted the most. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that for a student at a two-year public institution, textbooks and supplies as a percentage of tuition and fees is a shocking 72 percent; 26 percent for a student attending a four-year public institution.

Cash-strapped, tech-savvy students who yearn to be treated like consumers are left with few alternatives. In an effort to survive financially, they turn to used books, rentals, online piracy sites, and a robust gray market of low-cost international editions, all of which hurt authors and bookstores. With fewer sales of new books, the textbook publishing industry responds by escalating prices and revising editions faster to force students to buy new books. Instructors also share the pain by having to revise course plans more often.

Clearly, this presents an opportunity to bridge the value gap and better serve students, faculty, authors, the supply chain, and academic institutions. And for educational entrepreneurs, it’s a problem ripe for innovation and risk-taking.

In 2007, I left a major player in the college textbook industry to create a disruptive new publishing force. Our vision was to tear down the walls around content that were causing so many problems for students, instructors, institutions, and authors. We named our new company Flat World Knowledge.

Our philosophy and Flat World’s disruptive business model is based on the idea of abundance, not scarcity. Abundance makes information and knowledge available to whoever wants it. Scarcity restricts access by charging a high price.

We sign top scholars to write innovative textbooks and use an industry-tested product development model to ensure high-quality. We then turn the traditional publishing model on its head. Flat World textbooks are published under an open license, which anyone worldwide can access free online, with no restrictions. Educators have the freedom to reuse, revise, remix and redistribute a Flat World book they adopt—the four Rs of open—at no cost so long as they attribute the author and publisher and don’t engage in commercial activity. We generate revenue around our free, web-hosted textbooks by selling affordable formats, such as print-on-demand, audio, and handheld reader versions for about $30.

Our new publishing venture coincides with the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement which is gaining momentum since emerging over a decade ago. Open content, pioneered by MIT’s OpenCourseWare project, among others, takes advantage of the internet by freely sharing knowledge and reusing educational content.

To solve the textbook affordability crisis and remove barriers to student success, we need all hands on deck: educators and institutions, students and families, non-profit organizations and commercial businesses.

Federal and state governments can also be a catalyst to jump start educational innovation by seeding a competitive environment for businesses, organizations, and individuals to take risks and experiment. New ideas produce new companies and entities that create jobs and fuel economic growth.

Increasing access for all to higher education, textbooks and other learning materials is essential to building a healthy and sustainable knowledge-based economy. By opening up access, we unlock human capital and technical innovation in ways we can’t yet imagine.

Jeff Shelstad is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Flat World Knowledge, the first publisher of commercial, openly-licensed college textbooks.

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