Rutgers faculty discuss program to reduce textbook costs

The Open and Affordable Textbooks Program, created by the Rutgers Libraries, saved Rutgers students approximately $5.7 million since it began in 2016.
Photo by Roy Groething / Rutgers UniversityThe Open and Affordable Textbooks Program, created by the Rutgers Libraries, saved Rutgers students approximately $5.7 million since it began in 2016.

With financial difficulties mounting from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, affordability of textbooks and other course materials have increasingly become a concern for students. The Rutgers Libraries has been reducing costs through the Open and Affordable Textbooks (OAT) Program, which is projected to save approximately 16,400 students more than $2.1 million over the next year, according to an article from Rutgers Today.

The program awards research funds to Rutgers faculty who replace traditional textbooks with free or low-cost learning materials for their courses. Since its inception in 2016, the program has saved Rutgers students approximately $5.7 million in course material costs, according to the website.

Forty-two faculty members received OAT awards this year, more than double the amount from previous cycles, according to the article.

“I hope that this program continues to grow and encourage faculty to adopt alternative and affordable course materials,” said Lily Todorinova, undergraduate experience librarian and program coordinator. “While affordability in higher education has always been important, the economic challenges of the pandemic are bringing it to the forefront.”

Research has found that 7 in 10 students have skipped buying a textbook before due to cost, said Krisellen Maloney, vice president for information services and university librarian. Research also shows using open educational resources leads to significant improvement in student outcomes like higher grades and lower withdrawal rates.

“The program benefits students by creating a more equitable environment where everyone has access to the material they need to be successful in their courses,” Maloney said. “It also benefits professors by giving them additional flexibility in their teaching.”

Vadim Levin, OAT awardee and professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, said in many fields, textbooks are not very helpful because they do not contain new developments for their respective fields. He replaced his course’s out-of-print textbook with modules utilizing information online from governments and academic institutions.

“While the need for standard texts in well-established fields is not going to disappear, broad survey classes like ‘Earthquakes and Volcanoes’ works best when up-to-date information is included, something that is only possible if using dynamic content and not a fixed textbook,” Levin said.

Physical textbooks cannot be updated as frequently as online versions, said Brian Becker, assistant teaching professor for the Rutgers Writing Program. For his “Basic Composition” course, he said it is crucial to keep readings contemporary, which is only possible with a resource that can change as often as needed.

Becker said he replaced a $70 textbook for the class with a list of online readings, including essays from the textbook that were already available for free.

“There is no reason for students to have to spend money on textbooks when tuition is already so expensive,” Becker said.

Karen Cerulo, professor in the Department of Sociology, said she feels textbook costs can add up for students already facing tuition bills as well as campus living and dining costs in normal semesters. Cerulo decided to remove a textbook from her “Sociology of Deviant Behavior” course and use only readings.

“If I can help a little bit by making my course cost-free for them, it's sort of my doing my little bit to try to help students make ends meet,” Cerulo said.

Professor in the Department of Computer Science Jie Gao said the famous textbooks for her graduate course generally cost approximately between $100 and $140 per copy. For the OAT program, she adopted a textbook freely available online.

“In fact, I have used the lecture notes of the same author in my previous offering of the algorithm course substantially,” Gao said. “So the official switch to this new free book seems to be natural.”

Rutgers Libraries has encouraged students to discuss the benefits of open and affordable course materials with their professors and encourage them to participate in the program. The next cycle of applications is scheduled to open in January 2021, according to the article.