California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law an unprecedented $115 million investment in the expansion of Zero Textbook Cost degrees and open educational resources at the state’s community colleges. Building on a successful pilot that concluded in 2019, the funding will support the development of degree and certificate pathways that students can complete without spending a single dollar on textbooks. The program will be administered through the California Community College Chancellor’s Office and marks the single largest state investment in open educational resources to date.
“California’s historic investment in Zero Textbook Cost degrees is public policy at its best. It scales up a successful model in response to a pressing challenge, and it invests in changes that will reduce the cost of textbooks for California’s community college students for years to come,” said Nicole Allen, Director of Open Education for SPARC. “SPARC applauds Governor Newsom for his leadership in fighting the rising cost of textbooks.”
California launched its statewide Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) degree initiative in 2016 with a $5 million appropriation. The ZTC model aims to replace conventional textbooks with open educational resources and other no-cost materials in an entire degree or certificate program, so that students have a path to graduation clear of textbook costs. The pilot successfully developed 37 ZTC pathways encompassing 404 courses across 19 colleges, each pathway offering the potential to save students up to $700 per year according to the chancellor’s 2019 report.
Colleges involved in the pilot estimate that their ZTC programs will impact 23,373 students annually, which would achieve a cumulative savings of up to $42 million within three years—a more than 800% return on investment. Based on this data, the new $115 million investment has the potential to save students nearly a billion dollars in the coming years.
“The problem is not just about skyrocketing textbook prices anymore. The publishing industry is inventing new ways to extract money from students, from striking deals to automatically bill students for textbook fees to selling access codes that students need to earn a portion of their grade,” said Allen. “Investment in open educational resources is a proven strategy to eliminate textbook costs as a barrier while empowering students, faculty, and institutions with ownership over their course materials.”
The California Community Colleges is the largest higher education system in the nation, serving 2.1 million students across 116 colleges according to its website. In addition to waiving tuition entirely for nearly half of its students through the California College Promise Grant, the system also has the nation’s lowest community college tuition rates at $46 per unit. As a result, the cost of textbooks represents a disproportionately high amount of California community college students’ overall expenses—and can regularly exceed the cost of tuition itself (a typical three-unit course would cost $138 for tuition, but textbooks can still cost $200 or more).
“The idea of free community college is front and center in higher education policy right now, and the cost of textbooks must be a greater focus. With 7 in 10 community college students reporting that they are food or housing insecure, the cost of course materials can make or break a student’s ability to pursue their educational goals,” said Allen. “Even if tuition is free, students still can’t learn from textbooks they can’t afford.”
SPARC joined more than a dozen organizations in calling on California lawmakers to approve Governor Newsom’s proposed ZTC funding. Thousands of students, librarians, faculty, and advocates across the state engaged in grassroots action to call on legislators to support funding for the proposal. SPARC appreciates the leadership of the Michelson Center for Public Policy, which was founded by Dr. Gary K. Michelson, in organizing this effort.
While California’s $115 million investment tops the charts, multiple other states have passed notable open education initiatives this year. Idaho approved $1 million for a new effort to develop Zero Textbook Cost degrees, while New York and Colorado each renewed funding for their successful statewide OER programs. These state-level investments are complemented by continued funding for the federal government’s Open Textbook Pilot grant program, which provides vital support for consortial and multi-state efforts to develop and disseminate open textbooks.
SPARC is a global advocacy organization working to make research and education open and equitable by design—for everyone. For additional state policy recommendations to increase affordability, access, and equity for course materials, download the SPARC OER State Policy Playbook. For further comments, contact Nicole Allen at [email protected] or 202-750-1637.