On the path to earning an associate’s degree, a typical student spends about $3,400 on books and supplies—adding up to about one-quarter of their total education expenses.
In August of 2013, Tidewater Community College (TCC) in Norfolk, Va., rolled out a groundbreaking degree path in business administration where all textbooks and learning materials were available to students at no cost using Open Educational Resources (OER). Students created a buzz about what they called “Z classes”—zero books required—and the “Z-Degree” was named.
Linda Williams, professor of business management and administration at TCC who worked with faculty members and Lumen Learning to make the transition, said it was a heavy lift to develop original digital content, but professors soon realized the advantage of customizing the material. “It was truly a chance to create a course where the content was laser aligned to the course outcomes,” she says.
Students are embracing this new, affordable digital approach.
At Tidewater, Z courses fill to capacity at a rate significantly higher than non-Z courses, says Williams. For example, last fall a Z course in Calculus had an enrollment rate of 70%, compared to 43% for a non-Z course in the same subject.
When it comes to sticking with a class, students are more likely to stay in classes where the materials are free. About 1.7% of students dropped a Z course over the past four semesters, compared to 2.6% percent who dropped a non-Z class. Withdrawal rates—where students get a “W” without academic penalty—were 4.4% in Z-courses and 6.6% percent in non-Z courses. Williams says there is a 1% improvement in student success (finishing a course with a grade of C or higher) with Z courses, and when multiplied by enrollment nationwide, the potential impact could be massive.
And then there is the financial payoff for students and taxpayers.
About half of community college students receive financial aid—80% of that is federal aid. A switch to OER could translate into millions of dollars in textbook cost saving.
For every $1 TCC spent on the initiative, students save over $4, and that number is fully expected to grow over time. By spring, nearly 4,000 students at TCC will have taken a Z course and—with the average textbook costing about $100—the overall savings is estimated at $400,000. The Tidewater bookstore reports that about 65 percent of textbooks are purchased with financial aid dollars.
In the classrooms, professors are also embracing the move to open materials. They see a real advantage in students having immediate access to books from day one of class—no more excuses for not buying a book and diving right into the material, says Williams. The customized course also means professors don’t have to ask students to buy books in which they may only cover a few chapters because others are not relevant to their goals
Williams says as the catalog of high quality OER grows, the reasons not to adopt it become thinner: “We never envisioned at the beginning of this how deeply it would transform how we teach, what we teach, and how our students learn.”
Students are fueling demand for more Z courses, and three other programs are working to switch to Z courses by the fall of 2016. Tidewater administrators are being asked to share their experience with colleagues at other colleges and universities that are eager to improve affordability and quality in higher education.