Teaching without textbooks

By Janet Ekis

Teachers share concerns about the cost of textbooks for their students.

Elizabeth Johnston teaches English at New York’s Monroe Community College (MCC); Tori Matthews teaches biology. While the courses they teach are very different, Johnston and Matthews are passionate about the same subject: textbook cost.

College textbooks are expensive. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, textbook prices have risen more than 1,000 percent — over three times the rate of inflation — in the last 40 years. Recent initiatives within the State University of New York system and across the country are aimed at eliminating this financial weight by developing free replacements for textbooks.

Johnston and Matthews are among a handful of committed MCC faculty leading the charge. They’re using free or low-cost open educational resources (OER) to teach their courses – and students are responding.

“They routinely thank me for working to keep costs down, and I think that alone sets a tone of mutual respect,” Johnston said.

She also retains more students.

“Because all students now have access to the readings, they’re more likely to come to class,” she added.

Matthews is experiencing similar enthusiasm.

“When they can take Anatomy and Physiology and not have to pay hundreds for the book, they’re thrilled,” he said. “No one should have to be making the choice to buy a textbook or pay their utility bill. No one. If I can’t teach students – if I can’t lift them up without insisting they make an exorbitant financial sacrifice, then I’m not doing my job.”

The national average of annual textbook costs, typically around $1,300 per year for a full-time community college student, amount to about a third of the cost of an associate degree. Research shows this cost is a significant barrier to college completion. Students who don’t complete college are over 50 percent more likely than those who graduated to cite textbook costs as a major financial barrier, according to a study by Public Agenda.

“OER increases retention and is the more ethical choice given the enormous debts students are taking on,” Johnston said.

This article first appeared in Community College Daily.

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Janet Ekis

Janet Ekis is a college relations specialist at Monroe Community College in New York.

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