Thursday, December 20, 2018 News

A New Method for Estimating OER Savings

Open Education

Earlier this year, SPARC launched a community-wide effort to track $1 billion in worldwide savings through the use of OER, responding to a challenge issued in 2013. At the 2018 Open Education Conference, we announced that the OER movement had successfully reached this important milestone. This is the first of a multi-post series explaining our calculations behind the $1 billion, and what comes next.

This year, the movement for open educational resources (OER) hit a number of important milestones. The U.S. Congress backed OER not once but twice as a college affordability strategy, the Cape Town Declaration reached its ten year anniversary, and nearly half of U.S. institutions are using OpenStax open textbooks, just to name a few. While there are many benefits that drive schools, governments, and educators to use OER, the potential for cost savings continues to be a driving force.

While there is broad agreement that OER saves students money, there is less agreement over exactly how much. Depending on the source, you might see estimates for savings as high as $128 or as low as $79 per student, and the topic sometimes leads to heated debates. Some say savings should be based on the sticker price of traditional materials, others on estimated student spending, and there are various levels of complexity in methodologies to account for associated costs, student behavior, and price fluctuations.

When SPARC stepped up earlier this year to coordinate the community-wide effort to track $1 billion in OER savings, the big question was exactly how we would calculate these savings. As a recent graduate, I approach this topic with only one question on my mind: What is the best way to represent savings in a way that most accurately reflects what students experience?

I teamed up with Nicole Allen and David Wiley—who issued the $1 billion challenge back in 2013—to conduct a new, nationally-representative study to estimate OER savings that mirrors the student experience as closely as possible.

What we found was that on average, students save $116.94 per course when OER is adopted in place of traditional textbooks.

Below you will find a full explanation of how we arrived at this number, along with more detailed results. Nicole, David and I are preparing an article for publication in early 2019. In the meantime, you can check out our open dataset and analysis code here, and David Wiley has written up a more in-depth analysis here.



Our study set out to answer the following question: how much does a U.S. postsecondary student save per course when OER is adopted in place of traditional course materials? Looking at this question through the eyes of a student, we decided that the most reliable and equitable measure of savings would be to assume all students purchase their required materials and to collect price information based on the official source for each institution: the campus store.

We designed a methodology that would look at a nationally-representative sample of institutions and that would mirror the student experience of shopping at the campus store as closely as possible. We selected our sample of institutions randomly using the U.S. Department of Education’s IPEDS database of postsecondary institutions. We first limited the dataset to U.S. Title IV eligible public and private for-profit degree-granting institutions. We then stratified the institutions into categories based on their simplified Carnegie Classification, and selected a proportionate number of institutions from each category at random.

We also selected a sample of courses to focus on. Since the study was about estimating student savings through the use of OER, we focused only on courses with existing OER options. We built the list of courses by starting with those covered by OpenStax titles, then identified additional courses in underrepresented fields including world languages, the humanities, and social sciences. We then narrowed it down to a list of 20 courses, and assigned each institution in our sample five of these courses at random.

For each institution, we visited the course catalog and identified which of the five courses were offered. We then proceeded to the institution’s campus store and looked up the required materials for each of the offered courses for the Fall 2018 semester. Finally, we recorded the prices of each available purchasing option—new, used, print rental, digital rental, loose leaf, etc.—including the highest available price and the lowest available price. For courses with no materials listed, we recorded the high price and low price as zero.



The data we gathered gave us a picture of what the price of required course materials is across a range of disciplines and a variety of different purchasing methods. All told, our data collection process looked at 600 courses at 120 U.S. institutions. Of the courses for which we were able to gather information about assigned course materials, we found that 93.7% assigned traditional (or unknown) materials and 6.3% assigned OER.

To calculate the average price of materials for each course, we took the average of the highest available price and the lowest available price. While we considered trying to develop a more complex estimate based on the available options for each course and projected student behavior, we ultimately decided the options were too varied and there were too many potential confounding factors to develop a meaningful formula. So, we used the average price for each course to calculate an overall average price for each category of materials.

The average price for courses using traditional materials was $134.26 and the average price for courses using OER was $17.32. Therefore, the average savings between courses that use traditional materials and those that use OER was $116.94.

Overall Average Price and Savings for Course Materials
Traditional Materials $134.26
OER $17.32
Savings $116.94


We should note that the overall average price for OER courses is likely higher than what students would ultimately spend, since our methodology would only allow for recording a zero cost option for OER if it was marked or listed in the campus store. The average price for OER courses is also affected by the subset of OER courses that assigned a hybrid product or service. The average price for those OER courses was higher at $34.71, whereas the average price for courses using OER alone was $10.69.

Further analysis and detailed tables are available from David Wiley here. Overall, these results confirm what we have long advocated: that adopting OER in place of traditional materials achieves significant savings for students.


A Personal Note

I still remember the sticker shock from purchasing my textbooks for my first semester at college. I was lucky because I entered with AP credits from high school, but I still had several semesters of gen eds left to take. The receipt for the textbooks I purchased my first semester read over $700. Coming from a place of relative privilege, I was able to afford that first semester’s textbooks with the help of my parents. But what if I hadn’t? I certainly would not be where I am today, advocating for students and generally doing this work that I love.

As a recently graduated political science major, it’s long been a goal of mine to participate in research that is meaningful and timely. After collecting and analyzing all this data, I am hopeful that this study spurs a larger conversation about the reality of textbook costs and how much OER really saves students. In order to put students first, we need to continue keeping an eye on the textbook market and higher education trends in a reliable and precise way. While there are other studies similar to the one we’ve conducted, I’m especially proud to help expand the field of OER research.

Stay tuned for our next post in this series early next year, which will provide a detailed account of how we combined the results of this study with data on OER use to document $1 billion in student savings.


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