OpEd in San Jose Mercury News

20th December 200610:08 am

December 20, 2006

The San Jose Mercury News kindly published my op ed on Public Domain Textbooks and Community Colleges today, as follows:

The Public Policy Institute of California’s recent study into the shortcomings of our state’s community college system highlighted some alarming data: While most students enter community college with high hopes, just 15 percent manage to transfer to a four-year school within seven years. Put simply, there is a huge gap between the ambitions of students when they enter the system and their eventual results.

Many factors account for this dismal performance, including a lack of college-readiness, sparse resources for counseling, remedial education and tutoring, competition for space in the most desirable classes and, in some cases, unrealistic expectations. But for at least some of the students who fail or give up, money is a key issue. The rapidly escalating cost of textbooks is a case in point. The price of one required calculus textbook at Foothill Community College? $173. That’s more than 25 hours of work at the minimum wage. It’s hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you can’t afford the bootstrap.

Prices in the now-cartelized textbook industry have been rising at more than four times the inflation rate for all finished goods in recent years. Eligible students can readily obtain scholarships to pay tuition, including fee waivers. But financial aid for textbooks, which often cost far more than tuition, is much harder to come by, frequently involving an intrusive and bureaucratic application process. And when assistance is offered, there is never enough to go around.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In 2004, the Foothill-De Anza Community College District board of trustees adopted the nation’s first Policy on Public Domain Learning Materials. The policy ensures that administrators at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills and De Anza College in Cupertino support faculty members who want to create, cultivate, share or use free learning materials that reside in the public domain as substitutes for commercial textbooks.

In recent years, thanks largely to the generosity and vision of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s program in support of Open Education Resources, highly respected academic institutions such as MIT, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon have received significant funding to release high-quality learning materials, including textbook equivalents, streaming videos of lectures and even entire courses into the public domain via the Internet. With increased administrative support, community college instructors who see the benefits of this approach can more rapidly organize and augment these materials and provide them to students online, for free, or at the cost of printing if a hard copy is desired. In the process, students can save thousands of dollars on their education.

The opportunity to assist students in this way typically gets scant attention from the policy analysts who study community colleges and from many of those responsible for running them. One reason: Lower textbook costs directly help students but they don’t do anything to fill the coffers of the resource-starved academic institutions themselves and, in some cases, when colleges run their own bookstores, may even hurt colleges financially. In the digital age, however, colleges and particularly community colleges are going to have to decide if they are in the education business or the dead tree business.

Our community colleges need a massive boost in state funding to catch up with the national average on a full-time per-student basis. Calls for that support are less likely to fall on deaf ears, as they have for decades, if voters know that our public higher education system is doing all it can to use available technology and resources to increase access, lower costs and improve outcomes. One of the first places we plan to start is by assisting in the creation of free online public domain textbooks for key gateway courses in math and English. The skyrocketing cost of textbooks is a roadblock to higher education that needs to fall.

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