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College textbooks too expensive? Here's a cheaper option

Some college students are willing to gamble with their grades because they don't want to deal with the skyrocketing costs of textbooks. A new strategy could drop those prices to zero.
Bill Gephardt, KSL Modified: June 25, 2014 at 8:33 am •  Published: June 25, 2014
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Some college students are willing to gamble with their grades because they don't want to deal with the skyrocketing costs of textbooks.

They simply don't buy required books because they're too expensive, like an average of $1,200 a year. Over four years of college, that's nearly $5,000. So now, colleges have found a cheaper alternative: free digital textbooks.

Some required textbooks carry a $200 price tag. Government numbers show textbook prices are 812 percent higher than they were in the late 1970s, outpacing inflation for most consumer goods by more than three times.

“The market is broken,” said David Wiley, chief academic officer of Lumen Learning. “The textbook market is broken.”

He said textbook prices have gotten out of control.

“There is literally no market pressure on prices because students who are paying don’t get to choose. The faculty member makes the choice, and the faculty member doesn’t pay. There’s no particular reason for the faculty member to be price conscious,” he said.

Wiley said that helps drive up textbook prices. Now, as co-founder of Lumen Learning, Wiley is helping colleges embrace a new strategy that could drop those prices to zero by using open-source textbooks. These books are written by faculty and reviewed by their peers just like traditional textbooks. Here's the difference: They're published without copyright protection, so they're free to download and affordable to print.

“There’s no reason textbooks have to cost $150, $200,” said Jason Pickavance, director of educational initiatives at Salt Lake Community College.

Pickavance is rallying instructors there to adopt open-source materials for general education courses. He said while traditional publishers will always have a role, he doesn't want a system in which textbook prices are kept high by continually revised editions.

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