Last week, we, along with many university students and open education enthusiasts, were thrilled when California Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg announced an ambitious plan to introduce digital textbooks into the California State higher education system. Under the new legislation, Steinberg proposes that California pump $25 million into this project, which would give free access to texts for 50 core undergraduate classes in California’s three-tier public higher education system: California State University, University of California, and California Community Colleges. Here are the key points in the proposed legislation:

  • For each new text to be developed, the state will issue a Request for Proposal to invite faculty and publishers to develop open source texts that would be placed under a Creative Commons license.
  • All texts will be free online and, for students preferring a hard copy, the cost for a print edition will be just $20.
  • It will also require publishers to provide at least 3 free copies on reserve in campus libraries.

The state of California is not new to this type of program: it has had a similar program in place for its high school system since 2009. The California Free Digital Textbook Initiative, now in its third phase, aims to identify open source texts that meet state requirements and that cover the core high school classes.

So, why are these free textbooks so important? Well, as I pointed out last week, college costs are rising far out of reach for the average student. And what’s more, it’s not just tuition and admission fees that are so expensive: textbooks cost students an extraordinary amount, sometimes adding to a higher number than tuition. Dean Florez, President and CEO of 20 Million Minds pointed out in a recent op-ed that “the Center for College Affordability and Productivity … found that books and supplies, not tuition and fees, represent the largest cost increase for postsecondary students receiving aid and grants.” These costs can reach over $1,000 each year, for textbooks alone! Just imagine the number of students that would be able to stay in school without a hit to student loans if the cost of textbooks were erased from the equation!

This latest piece of legislation is not the first of its kind for higher ed: this year, the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges launched their Open Course Library, which will realize savings of over $1.2 million for its students in just the first year alone. (In fact, the Saylor Foundation partnered with SBCTC to open these resources up to everyone: check out the courses here.)

Some criticism of this new legislation has already arisen, particularly because Steinberg’s announcement comes nearly in conjunction with a series of budget cuts that will deeply impact California’s higher education system. However, if the cost savings seen in Phase 1 of the Open Course Library is any indication, this new piece of legislation has the opportunity to save students of the California higher education system billions of dollars. (Florez estimates a savings of $1 billion a year, on an annual basis.) California students stand behind Steinberg’s legislation, having set up the Affordable Textbooks Now petition to try and sway legislators to vote for bills that promote more affordable higher education and to tell professors to use more affordable textbooks.

So, what do you think? Should this legislation pass, despite California’s poor financial conditions? We think it is an excellent plan to provide students a more affordable education, so we’ll be keeping a close eye on it. We’ll keep you posted on any news surrounding this piece of legislation: be sure to follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook for updates!


Photo credit, xshamethestrongx