Students use computers at Information Commons in UTSA's John Peace Library. Credit: Courtesy / UTSA Libraries

Richard shuddered when he saw the price of the textbook for his biology course.

$337 plus tax.

The University of Texas at San Antonio student in criminal justice and sociology and U.S. Navy veteran was allotted a $375 book stipend by the post-9/11 GI bill. This course would decimate his book and supply budget, if, of course, the check arrived in time for the beginning of the semester, which in his experience wasn’t a given. Facing the dismal prospect of paying a small fortune for a textbook and falling behind in the course, the writing was on the wall. Richard dropped the biology course, impeding his progress toward the goal of attaining a college degree.

Unfortunately, Richard’s experience is the norm nationally. Textbook prices have been increasing at a rate more than twice the rate of inflation for decades, and data from several surveys show that students will go to great lengths in order to avoid the sticker shock associated with buying new textbooks in print including – with increasing frequency – trying to take courses without access to the required course materials. Nationally, 65 percent of students did not purchase course materials because of their cost. This is not a recipe for student success or workforce preparedness.

At UTSA, the issue is more acute. More than 42 percent of UTSA undergraduates come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, so financial pressures loom larger here than at the average university. Finances are cited as a chief reason why UTSA students drop out. Furthermore, 45 percent of UTSA students are the first in their families to go to college. These students often depend on the university to provide personal and academic support networks. We have to make concerted efforts to remove any artificial barriers (read: inflated textbook prices) to their success.

In response to clarion calls for affordability, access and equity in higher education, state governments (including Texas) and universities (including UTSA) are questioning the status quo and promoting adoption of open educational resources (OER). OERs are no-cost educational materials that faculty and students can freely access and use online for teaching, learning, and research. OERs’ open copyright licenses permit faculty to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute as they design, create, and teach their courses. OERs can be almost anything – textbooks, videos, workbooks, tests, and quizzes, open access journal articles, tutorials, or entire courses – that has educational value.

In 2016, the UTSA Libraries launched several OER initiatives, including a faculty grant program in order to positively affect student learning outcomes, grades, student engagement, retention, and graduation rates, and make a UTSA education even more affordable. In our first two years, UTSA Libraries awarded 29 grants to faculty willing to discontinue using traditional textbooks and switch to teaching with OERs for four semesters.

From a strictly financial perspective, UTSA’s grant program has been a tremendous success. With a $49,000 investment, UTSA Libraries saved students more than $840,000 in the fall 2017 semester alone, and project to save $3.4 million over four semesters. The return per $1 spent on OER is $69. Nationally, OER adoption demonstrates comparable returns on investment.

Students have reported that they were engaged with these texts. More than 85 percent of participating students rated the OER as good as or better than a traditional textbooks in preparing for tests, accessibility, ease of use, and content quality.

Students study in the African-American Reading Room in UTSA’s John Peace Library. Credit: Courtesy / UTSA Libraries

We at UTSA Libraries are still evaluating our program’s effect on course grades and learning outcomes, but if it reflects national trends, we predict no statistically significant difference between students using open textbooks and traditional textbooks. Those who prefer print versions of textbooks have print-on-demand options that charge only for the materials and equipment. For instance, UTSA students taking introductory biosciences courses use an open biology textbook from Rice University’s OpenStax that costs $25.

Elected officials have taken notice of this trend. In 2017, more than 70 bills related to OER were filed in 28 states. Coupling the current maturity level of OERs and the political interest in lowering the cost of higher education, librarians and open education advocates in Texas pushed hard for OER legislation. In June 2017, Texas added its name to the list of these states when Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 810 with broad bipartisan support. As a result, Texas established its own faculty grant program and is currently investigating the feasibility of a state repository of OERs.

But my commentary ultimately is not about textbooks, it’s about open education and its transformative power. Textbooks are an example of that power. To create the San Antonio we want – the city we deserve – the community must work hard to change institutional cultures, innovate, build infrastructure, and remove artificial barriers to its goals. That’s easy to say, but it’s hard work.

It is time for the public sector in San Antonio to read the millennial tea leaves and take the open agenda seriously in critical areas such as K-12 education, government data, and scholarly research. It shows great potential to grow economies, accelerate discoveries, and combat misinformation – and help students like Richard achieve his dreams.

Dean Hendrix is the dean of libraries at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Raised in San Antonio, he returned home in 2016 after a faculty career at the University at Buffalo and Colorado State University....