AUSTIN (KXAN) — Can you earn a degree without purchasing a single textbook? Austin Community College says with careful planning and their new Z-degree program, it’s possible.
The Z-degree program, launched in the spring of 2017 at ACC, offers classes that use free materials and open educational resources (or OERs) to save money. There are more than 400 classes at ACC now available with this option, so many in fact, that students pursuing an Associate of Science in General Studies or an Associate of Arts in General Studies can complete an entire degree without paying for a textbook.
ACC said they are also working to develop a Z-degree for their Business degree program. Other specific tracks at ACC, like Nursing, have several pre-requisite courses that have zero textbook cost options.
These resources are available free and online during the first day of class. ACC describes the resources as openly licensed, high-quality course materials to be used in place of textbooks.
This option has become increasingly popular with students. When the program launched, 707 students enrolled in 29 Z-degree classes offered during the spring semester of 2017. That number has ballooned in the semesters following, in the fall of 2018, 9,600 students enrolled and in the spring of 2019, 9771 students enrolled. In total, more than 31,000 ACC students have taken these zero-textbook courses.
This comes at a time when the average prices for both new and used textbooks trend upward, according to the 2016-2017 from the Independent College Stores Financial Survey. Their statistics show the price of a new textbook at $90 and the price of a used textbook at $58.
ACC says on average, new textbooks cost about $100 each, using that estimate they figure that this program has now saved ACC students more than $3 million in total. They estimate that students who are able to complete their associate degree with these zero-cost resources will save on average about $2,000.
ACC student Emilee Carruth wasn’t aware of these zero cost textbooks until she walked into one of her required classes for her first semester at ACC.
“I was wondering why my textbook wasn’t on the website for me to go buy it, but I went into class and she was like, ‘our textbook is actually free, I made it, it’s on the website so you don’t have to buy anything, just read it from there,'” Carruth recalled her teacher saying. “And I was like ‘oh that’s really nice, that’s cool my other textbooks were like 200 dollars!'”
Carruth said she likes that her teacher actually made her textbook and knows “everything about it.”
She went back to college after having two children. In the past, the cost of higher education was something that held her back from trying.
“This whole textbook thing is cool, it takes off a barrier that a lot of people probably have, a financial barrier,” she said.
“You don’t have to worry about carrying around a big book, you can just go on your phone or your computer and go look at your book from wherever you’re at, it’s very helpful,” Carruth added. “It’s not the same for all the classes that have the zero textbook cost, but for this one in particular, it’s really nice that it’s online.”
Taren Hodges is taking five courses in her first semester at ACC, one of them is a zero textbook cost class. Hodges signed up for that class because she’d heard that the professor wrote the textbook being used in the class.
“I didn’t think there was much to lose, but I didn’t know what I would be gaining from it,” she said.
For Hodges, she hopes to choose other classes that have the zero textbook cost option as well. Not only does she like saving money, but she also likes that it has interactive elements embedded in the online text.
“Because there are different links on the online textbook, that you can go in and test and make it really personal and apply the information that you’re learning– that’s my favorite part,” she said.
ACC acknowledges that these online-based texts are not for everyone.
“Some students tell us they prefer the physical experience of having a textbook and think that they learn better without the distractions of the internet,” an ACC spokesperson said in an email. “To address this, at a faculty member’s request, our library has placed print copies of some textbooks on reserve or they may be available in the library’s textbook collection for semester-long checkout.”
For ACC students who are interested in taking these courses, when searching for courses, select “Course Type” and select “Open Educational Resources” (OER) or “Zero Textbook Cost” (ZTC).
Concern about textbook costs
The National Association of College Stores explained that students are still spending a significant amount, though the overall spending on course materials is trending downward, with student spending on materials declining 31 percent over the last decade. According to the NACS Student Watch survey, the average college student spent $484 in the 2017-2018 school year on materials. In the 2016-2017 year, that number was $576.
“These initiatives for the zero degree programs like Austin’s are still fairly limited at community colleges and primarily supported through a foundation national program in the third year of piloting,” NACS said, noting that some institutions also use a combination between openly licensed materials and more targetted financial aid to help students.
NACS pointed out that students in their first four years of college might qualify for the American Opportunity Tax credit, which could cover up to $2,500 in tuition, fees, books, and supplies. They noted that this can bring textbook costs down to zero for many students. For more information about these tax credits, look here and here.
Texas State University told KXAN they are aware of the challenges created by the cost of textbooks, departments and faculty there also work to identify Open Education Resource texts that the library can purchase in bulk. Some of the listed textbooks they have available to students range in price, from $19.95 to $169.99 on Amazon. Based on typical enrollment in these classes, Texas State believes that having these texts available could save a combined total of more than $26,000 for their students.
“The rising cost of higher education continues to trouble political and education leaders,” said Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund A. Paredes, noting that Texas is making progress when it comes to the rising costs students face. “The state and individual institutions are supporting the use of open educational resources, instructional materials that are either free or far less expensive than conventional textbooks.”
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has asked the state legislature this year to allocate $250,000 to fund the development of an Open Educational Resource (OER) repository for the state, using an existing state OER resource. THECB also asked the legislature for $200,000 in grants to help faculty develop OER course materials.
The state already has a program where THECB can award grants to higher education faculty to develop these open educational resources. Fifteen different faculty members from institutions across the state — including Austin Community College — were awarded grants in 2018 which amounted to a total of $100,000.
A bill has been filed in the Texas House (HB 3652) that would help to create this state database of free educational resources and a web portal customized to the needs of individual institutions. That bill was voted out of the House Higher Education Committee Wednesday.