Cutting Costs with a Textbook-free Degree at Tidewater Community College

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While textbook costs may seem like a drop in the debt-filled bucket for students at private universities, they’re an all-too-noticeable burden at public schools, community colleges, and continuing education programs. In fact, recent research shows that the price of course materials is rising even faster than both tuition and inflation. College-level text prices have grown more than nine-fold over the past thirty years, a huge figure even when compared to the contemporary 559 percent increase in tuition.

Fortunately, some schools are starting to embrace cheaper alternatives. Campus bookstores are offering rental programs, teachers are producing low-cost course notebooks, and publishers are licensing e-texts for far less than paper-bound books. Still, all of these options require students to fork over additional cash. Wouldn’t it be great if higher ed institutions embraced the explosion of free, open-source, high-quality content?

TCC’s Text-free Business Degree

This summer, Tidewater Community College will begin offering a totally textbook-free program for students seeking associates of science in business. To implement the 21-course program, TCC has partnered with Lumen Learning, a consulting company focused on open educational resources (OER).

Instead of traditional texts, TCC business teachers will be using the open-source books on the Creative Commons system, as well as the publicly available content from MIT Opencourseware, Khan Academy, and several other online educational initiatives. All told, TCC faculty will be drawing upon roughly two-dozen outside sources, integrating everything into a single Blackboard CMS.

The business professors will also be modifying and creating their own course materials. Even with all of the content currently available, there are still gaps. Problem sets, PowerPoint presentations, and webinars all need to be created – and most of it will eventually be open to schools across the country. “We’ve noticed in our grant activity that it’s becoming common to require content to be made publicly available nationwide,” notes Daniel DeMarte, TCC Vice President for Academic Affairs.

With its elimination of all textbook-related costs, the program looks like it’s going to save TCC students $2,000  to $2,500  – roughly a third of the cost of their two-year business degree. And, while it’s a little early to tell, the initiative may also lead to savings for the school itself. They have to hire consultants and content creators on the front end, but they may avoid a myriad of licensing costs and purchasing contracts in the future.

Is For-cost Content a Goner?

There’s still a big market for paper books and licensed e-texts – for now. But that may change if TCC’s program is popular among its students, and if other schools and consortia adopt similar initiatives. The growth of tuition rates and textbook costs is showing no signs of slowing, and the tactile appeal of bound books seems hardly worth the costs. With so many big-name schools offering free content, to boot, it looks like open-source material could be the most cost-effective route for smaller colleges and universities.

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