Higher education and high textbook prices usually go hand in hand, but hundreds of UC Merced students have been able to keep more money in their pockets thanks to a grant program.
The Zero-Cost Course Materials Grant, coordinated by the UC Merced Library and the Center for Engaged Teaching and Learning, allocated $30,000 in awards over a three-year period to faculty and instructors who replaced required commercial textbooks or other materials with freely available materials or library electronic resources. The Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost also provided $2,000 to fund two additional courses.
The pilot program is projected to save over $276,000 in textbook costs before wrapping up at the end of this semester.
"This is the first grant program at UC Merced that encourages faculty adoption of no-cost materials," said Elizabeth Salmon, a research services librarian at the UC Merced Library. "Our goal was to increase awareness of these materials and prevent adverse student learning outcomes that are associated with high textbook costs."
According to estimated figures from the University of California, textbooks and supplies are responsible for more than 9% of tuition and 3% of the total cost of attending a UC in 2022-23. Growing costs of other expenses can also impact a student's bottom line.
The coronavirus pandemic affected students as well. In a survey carried out by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), 5,000 students at 82 colleges and universities were asked about textbook costs and habits. Of those surveyed, 65% reported skipping buying a textbook because of the cost in 2020, with 90% of the students concerned that not purchasing materials would negatively impact their grade.
17 Courses Supported
In their grant program applications, instructors described how they planned to redesign their courses after replacing the commercial textbooks. Each selected recipient was awarded a grant of $1,000 or $1,500 to cover a variety of costs, including professional development and teaching equipment.
Grants were allotted to a total of 17 courses between spring 2019 and spring 2022 in all three schools. More than 2,500 students were enrolled in at least one course supported by the grants.
Multiple faculty members at UC Merced took advantage of the grant program, including economics Teaching Professor Jason Lee, who was becoming "increasingly concerned about the spiraling cost of textbooks."
Before he learned about the grant, students in Lee's Introduction to Economics (ECON 001) course could buy the new textbook for approximately $265 or the used version at $197. Some students, however, were forgoing the textbook altogether.
"I was concerned that due to the high cost of the textbook, students were simply not buying or renting the required course materials, resulting in lower performance in the classroom," said Lee. "I saw the Zero-Cost Course Materials Grant program as a great way to seek an alternative that would allow students to access the course materials at a significantly reduced cost."
While not without imperfections, the open-source textbook was free and closely matched the material Lee used in his class. He believes that as these open-source textbooks gain wider adoption, the quality will continue to improve.
In anonymous course evaluations, Lee's students wrote that they appreciated the cost-free materials.
Students in other courses had similar feelings. Fourth-year student Heidy Gomez Barrios said a couple of her classes utilized digital materials, which helped her and her classmates save money.
"I know a lot of students were relieved they didn't have to buy a textbook," she said.
Gomez Barrios is part of the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG). Since 2004, it has been campaigning for textbook affordability by researching freely available materials and the textbook market. The group's club at UC Merced is working to attract more students to become involved and make change, including garnering more support for open-source textbook programs across the UC system.
"We are striving to get more student and faculty support to show the UC Regents that funding for programs like these is needed," she explained. "So far, we have more than 2,000 petitions from students and more than 380 faculty signoffs to show support."
Looking to the Future
Over the past few years, textbook prices have started to stagnate and even decrease a bit, said Salmon, which could be in response to conversations about affordability and open educational resources. Even though the grant is coming to an end at UC Merced, advocates continue to hold out hope.
"There have been some discussions taking place on the systemwide level, so it is possible programs like this may be funded in the future," said Salmon. "At the end of the day, any movement toward making course materials more affordable is a benefit to students."