As the cost of college continues to increase, a growing number of Carolina college students may be able to save money by getting their textbooks for free.
Free digital textbooks — which academics call Open Educational Resources, or OERs — can help reduce the $1,000 University of South Carolina students and $1,346 Clemson University students pay every year for books and supplies.
The University of North Carolina System is also working on a grant-funded project to widen OER usage. Programs are already in place at East Carolina University, N.C. State University, UNC Greensboro and UNC Charlotte.
At USC, at least 24 professors in seven different colleges offer OER textbooks for their students online, free of charge, said USC Librarian Aimee Freeman. Clemson offers a similar program, according to its website. Though USC lets professors make the final call on what to use as textbooks, the university — and especially student government — has encouraged professors to switch to free online textbooks.
Student Body President Taylor Wright said he met with Provost Joan Gabel and she was “100 percent on-board” with enabling professors to switch to OERs, something USC spokesman Jeff Stensland confirmed.
“It’s going to be a pretty big deal for us,” Wright said. “One of our big tasks is promoting affordability.”
During the last week of the spring 2018 semester, Wright said student government awarded four teachers grants to switch to OERs. Part of the goal, he said, is to raise awareness that these textbooks are available.
“I think a lot of professors just don’t know about it,” Wright said.
USC’s OER program has saved students an estimated $429,000 since the university started the program in 2014, USC spokeswoman Peggy Binette said in an email.
The push to move to online, digital textbooks is often framed in terms of saving money. Roughly two-thirds of college students haven’t purchased a textbook because it cost too much, according to USC’s and Clemson’s websites.
“We are excited to hear about these efforts at Clemson and USC that reduce the costs that students have to pay to attend college,” said Jeff Schilz, the interim executive director of the state’s college oversight body, the Commission on Higher Education. He said the commission “looks forward to working with all of the colleges in South Carolina in implementing similar programs.”
However, new research indicates there are more benefits for students. Students who use free online textbooks scored higher on tests than their peers using conventional textbooks, according to a 21,822-student study from the University of Georgia recently published in the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.
“We did find, though students do better overall, it was disproportionately higher for Pell recipients, part-time students, historically underrepresented and minority students,” said study author and University of Georgia lecturer Nicholas Colvard. “OERs can help level the academic playing field for students who may have been historically underrepresented.”
Researchers often use Pell Grants, public scholarships for low-income students, to determine the number of low-income college students in a study.
With textbooks being free and accessible on computer, tablet and more, Colvard said students are more likely to use them.
Professors at USC have reported similar findings.
“Faculty report that USC students using these resources do as well or better than students using traditional textbooks,” Binette said.
USC assistant professor of English Hannah Rule said she switched her first-year English 102 course to OER textbooks, not because of cost, but because she thought they were more effective than traditional textbooks in teaching students how to continue learning after college.
“Not only is it about cost, it’s about having access to these rich materials,” Rule said.
Rule switched to OERs several years ago after receiving a $500 grant from USC libraries and USC student government. That money goes toward “overhauling the entire course,” in order to convert from conventional textbooks to free online textbooks, Rule said.
Rule cautions OERs likely won’t work for every course, but, “I think, broadly, any time you can increase access (for) students … you’re going to see an increase in learning,” Rule said.
Though OERs are peer-reviewed and experts say they are typically the same quality as conventional textbooks, they aren’t available for every course.
USC clinical assistant professor of Epidemiology Linda Hazlett said she wants to use free online textbooks to teach her 130 students per semester, but the only epidemiology textbook available as an OER is written for graduate students.
“Right now, I don’t require students to use the textbook for class,” Hazlett said. “It’s an excellent textbook, but it costs money.”
How to find out if you’re eligible for a free textbook at USC:
- Get a copy of the class’ syllabus. Rule mentions OERs on the syllabus.
- Check if your teacher is a part of USC’s Professors for Student Affordability, a list of professors using OERs.
- Separate from the OER program, USC’s library allows students to check out some textbooks, free of charge. Students can check textbook availability online or at the circulation desk at the library.