Newsom’s bid to return free textbooks delayed in community college central office

By Michael Burke, EdSource

More than a year after California lawmakers set aside $115 million to expand free textbook programs in the state’s 116 community college system, the money remains stuck in the Chancellor’s office. State.

Funds have yet to reach colleges or support system students who often spend hundreds of dollars per semester to purchase books.

Funding has been approved last summer by lawmakers and Governor Gavin Newsom, just months after Newsom made headlines when he called the textbook industry a “racketeer.” The money is intended to fund diploma and certificate programs that will allow students to complete these programs without spending anything on textbooks.

For months, the money has flowed into the state chancellor’s office that oversees colleges. Officials said they could not distribute funds until they finished developing an application for colleges to complete. This application should be available for colleges by next month. They also needed time to create a portal that will let the college system know if free textbook programs are helping students achieve success.

Colleges are waiting for that funding, said James Glapa-Grossklag, dean of educational technology and learning resources at College of the Canyons in northern Los Angeles County. This college already has free textbook degrees available and could develop more with additional funding.

“My community college colleagues regularly ask me when we can expect the state chancellor’s office to release funding to colleges,” added Glapa-Grossklag, who was also the past chair of the Community College Consortium for Open educational resources. The consortium recommends for free textbooks and other materials, believing that they facilitate access to higher education. Open educational resources include textbooks and other learning materials that are freely available in the public domain and are the primary means colleges use to provide free textbooks to students.

Once the money is allocated to colleges, how it is spent may vary from campus to campus. Some colleges may use the money to pay professors who can adapt open textbooks best for their classes, such as using an existing textbook but adding material specific to the course they are teaching.

Sometimes open-licensed material may not meet the needs of a given classroom, acknowledged Cailyn Nagle, open educational resource program manager at the Michelson 20MM Foundation, an organization that advocates for open textbooks. “There are classes where you need modern novels, for example. These will not be in the public domain, but students should still have access to them,” Nagle said. In this case, funding could pay for these materials.

Already, there are several colleges across the state where students can earn certain degrees without paying for textbooks, usually by accessing open textbooks. In 2016, lawmakers allocated $5 million for a pilot program allowing colleges to develop textbook-free programs. Over the next three years, 19 colleges that received grants reported developing a total of 37 no-cost degree and certificate programs, according to the Chancellor’s Office.

The latest investment of $115 million is intended to massively expand these types of programs across the state. The money is primarily for programs that use open textbooks, but colleges have some flexibility to use the funding to pay for more traditional materials that aren’t openly licensed, Nagle said.

In addition to saving students money, there is some data to suggest that students also perform better academically when they don’t pay for textbooks because no cost means no barriers to getting textbooks. Across the zero-cost textbook programs that were part of the California pilot program, all students scored 3% higher than students in the same classes taught with traditional classroom materials, according to the Community College Consortium for OER.

Other research has also suggested that students with access to open educational resources perform better than their peers, with this trend especially true for recipients of Pell Grants, the federal financial aid grants available to low-income students. Often low-income students avoid buying textbooks when they cannot afford them. In 2020, 65% of students said they did not buy course materials because they were too expensive, according to a national survey.

Among the students who have benefited from free textbook classes is Noe Estrada, who enrolled at College of the Canyons in 2019 and was initially shocked by the price of textbooks. With the cost of each book ranging from $150 to $250, a semester’s worth of textbooks could cost up to $1,000, Estrada said. For students like Estrada, textbooks cost more than tuition, which is $46 per unit at community colleges, fees waived entirely for the majority of students.

Several factors contribute to the high price of textbooks, including the lack of competition in the industry: only a few publishers control about 80% of university textbooks. To prevent students from sharing textbooks with each other, digital versions of books often come with an access code that expires after the term. Some professors also give away books of which they are the authors, which would earn them royalties on sales.

During her first terms in college, Estrada sometimes omitted to buy her textbooks because other expenses, such as buying formula for her newborn son, took priority.

Things changed for Estrada when, in 2020, he enrolled in a sociology course that did not require students to pay anything for the course textbook, as the course used materials available free to all. .

“My teacher, she was great. She understood the impact that the cost of a college education has on students. She sent us a link to a website that had the free manual. And that’s how I found out about all these free books,” Estrada said in an interview.

From then on, Estrada only enrolled in classes that used free textbooks, of which there are plenty in the sociology department at College of the Canyon. He said he used the website Evaluate my teachers to find teachers who used free textbooks. He finally completed his associate’s degree in sociology this spring and is transferring this fall to California State University, Northridge.

In addition to affordability, there are other benefits to opening textbooks, Nagle said.

For example, unlike many online textbooks that students access with a code that expires after one term, students can access open textbooks in perpetuity. Nagle, who earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and archeology from the University of Georgia, recalls using an open-ended first-semester geology textbook throughout his four years at college.

“When I was in other advanced geology courses, I was still referring to it. So if I had lost access at the end of term, I would have struggled my third year,” Nagle said.

Nagle also pointed out that open textbooks are downloadable and students do not need an internet connection to access them. “If you live with five people who all need to use the internet at the same time, you might struggle to read the digital textbook that must always be connected to the internet,” they said. “With an open manual, you can download this material. You don’t have to be constantly online to reference it or to access it.

Soon, more students across the state may have the ability to access these materials and complete their degrees or certificates without paying for textbooks, advocates say.

Newsom told a budget press conference last year that it was “California’s obligation to disrupt” the textbook industry. “I am determined to fight against the racketeering of textbooks in this country,” he added at the time.

Teacher groups have also shown their support for open textbooks. The California Community Colleges Academic Senate in 2019 adopted a resolution recommending that faculty “consider the adoption of open educational resources (OER), including customizable educational materials, as a measure to achieve equity and facilitate student success”.

By next month, the chancellor’s office plans to allow colleges to begin applying for a portion of the $115 million included in last year’s budget, said Marty Alvarado, executive vice chancellor for educational services. . Rather than automatically getting a portion of the funding, colleges must apply for it because the legislation specifies that the money must be distributed competitively, Alvarado added.

Alvarado said she knows many colleges are “concerned that the dollars haven’t been spent.” But she added that in addition to creating the app, staff at the Chancellor’s Office have spent the last year creating a data portal that will allow the college system to track how the money is benefiting students, for example if funding zero-cost textbook degrees leads to better grades and higher pass rates for students.

Alvarado said the system needs to be able to track student success so it can have strong evidence to point to when advocating for more funding for zero-cost textbook programs in future budget cycles.

The chancellor’s office also plans to launch a task force this fall, Alvarado said, to further examine zero-cost textbook programs and determine how the system can better advocate for additional state spending. .

“We needed to make sure that our approach was intentionally designed to support students, help colleges make the necessary progress, and then think about the state-level structures that need to be in place to ensure this is not something where each year are asking us for more money, but we are unable to show what the impact is on students,” she added.

Nagle said that while “deadlines are deadlines,” she appreciates that the Chancellor’s office is thinking about how it deploys the funding, especially given the $115 million price tag.

“With an investment of this size, if the trade-off is getting it right or getting it done on time, I’d much rather they did it right,” Nagle said.

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