Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced the Affordable College Textbook Act to Congress on Oct. 8. If passed, the bill would provide grants to professors who convert to using open textbooks — which are free, electronic and publicly accessible — and would save students hundreds of dollars, if not more, every year.
In Durbin’s home state, professors already piloted the program at the University of Illinois. The college used a $150,000 federal grant to design a textbook for an introductory environmental sustainability course and published it electronically for free and open use. According to Durbin, approximately 60,000 students from multiple universities have accessed the textbook.
“At least a dozen schools throughout the country have contacted the University of Illinois about the text or are using it today,” Durban stated in an Oct. 8 press release. “The Affordable College Textbook Act can replicate and build on the successes we’ve already seen in Illinois.”
Ethan Senack, a Higher Education Advocate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, argued that though textbook prices are often overlooked, they are an immediate and increasingly large obstacle to affording college.
“It’s clear that for students and families that are already struggling to afford a college education, it’s not just an expensive textbook anymore — it’s a serious barrier,” Senack told the UCSD Guardian.
According to NBC’s review of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, textbook prices have risen at three times the rate of inflation since 1977, amounting to a 1,041 percent increase. College Board recommends that students budget $1,225 annually to spend on course textbooks.
In a survey performed by PIRG, 48 percent of students indicated that they changed their courses because of textbook costs, while 65 percent of students revealed that they had opted not to purchase a textbook at all because it was too expensive. Furthermore, 94 percent of the latter group were concerned that not buying the textbook would negatively impact their grades in the course.
Senack explained how the textbook market became set up in favor of publishers and how the Affordable College Textbook Act intends to fix that.
“Because students don’t choose the books they have to buy, they’re a captive market and publishers have capitalized on that by raising prices every year for decades,” Senack said. “This bill restores some competition to an industry where just a handful of giants have managed to prevent it.”
Durbin argued that, since students have already shifted away from the market, the government should develop means to ensure that students continue to have access to materials essential to their education.
“When we live in an age of ordering books online at [a] deep discount, we have to really understand that the traditional textbook market is changing,” Durbin told the Guardian. “Let’s make it change to for the benefit of students.”
On the other hand, David Anderson, the Executive Director of Higher Education at the Association of American Publishers, disagreed with the notion that Congress should interfere with market forces.
“We oppose the government putting their thumb on the scale in terms of how the private market operates,” Anderson told the Houston Press.
He further argued that the bill is not financially salvageable, with the cost of developing a textbook landing between $500,000 and $3 million.
“It’s an unworkable proposal; we don’t think it makes a lot of sense,” Anderson said. “The money has to come from somewhere and if it’s the college or university developing the books they may seek the money from tuition.”
However, Senack clarified that publishers will not in any way be forced to change their practices. The bill will merely support professors in creating an alternative to what publishers provide.
“It’s important to remember that the goal of the bill is actually to empower those people who are trying to make the change,” Senack told the Guardian. “We’re not here to mandate anything or tell anybody they have to do something. We’re looking to provide the people who are interested in switching with the resources and training that they need to do so.”
Senator Al Franken (D-MN), another one of the bill’s sponsors, stated that the Affordable College Textbook Act will directly aid students who are struggling more than ever to pay for college.
“The reality is that our college students are taking on more debt than ever while also working more and more hours to stay afloat,” Franken stated in the press release. “By expanding access to free online textbooks, our bill would help address this problem and allow students and families to keep more of their hard-earned money.”
Other sponsors of the bill include Minnesota Senator Al Franken, Maine Senator Angus King, Texas Congressman Ruben Hinojosa and Colorado Congressman Jared Polis. Durbin also introduced the bill to Congress in November 2013, but it did not advance.
California passed a similar law this past Thursday, the College Affordability Act of 2015, which will allocate funds to California Community Colleges and California State Universities for minimizing textbook costs. If the academic senates of an institution agrees to adopt and develop a plan to utilize open education resources, they will be eligible to receive state funds for the program.