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Affordable Learning Solutions

Student carrying a large stack of books.
Photo by: Joan Iguban Galiguis
The high cost of textbooks and other materials can be one more barrier for college students struggling to fund their education.

By James Tinney

Published Feb. 2, 2019

You buy a textbook, an expensive one. You use it a lot, or just a little. At the end of the semester, you take it back to the bookstore. It turns out, next semester, that book is not going to be used. You are offered pennies on the dollar. Outrageous! You take the book home. You pack it up when you move, and when you move again and again.

Eventually, it goes to Goodwill.

If you see a royal blue psychology text there, take a look. It may have been mine.

Most former and current college students can recount a similar tale of woe. For some, it is a mere annoyance. For others, especially those struggling to fund their college education, the high cost of learning materials can be one more barrier to earning a degree.

That’s why the Cal State system has launched Affordable Learning Solutions, an initiative that encourages faculty members to adopt e-books and other free or inexpensive materials available online. The program uses a range of strategies to provide students with affordable options for learning, which have resulted in the CSU’s students saving an estimated $35 million annually.

Danielle Burchett, an assistant professor of psychology at CSUMB, teaches a course in career preparation, which enrolls around 180 students.

I was shocked at the bills that students would rack up. You would see undergrad students with seven, eight, nine hundred dollars worth of textbooks. And some of those students would buy a textbook and hardly ever read out of it.
Ryan Luke

“When you try to decide on a textbook, content is very important, of course, but affordability is a consideration as well,” she said. “In looking through the different options, I was fortunate to find one that was quite inexpensive. Even new, I think it is about $25; used copies run around $20.

“So right away, the content was what I was looking for, the price was great, compared to those gigantic, mega-hardback books that can cost $200.”

The CSUMB library paid for an online version of the textbook, which allowed students with their Otter ID to access it through the internet.

“The other piece was trying to create a website that students could continue to access,” Burchett said. “The class is about preparing for a career, so that is certainly not something you do for one semester and stop. And as they approach graduation a few semesters later, they are going to want to have those sources and that information that they can come back to.

“It is a fun part of the job, because it is a way of working toward student success and providing one big resource where students can go and find information they need.”

Grants to Faculty

Librarian Jacqueline Grallo served as the original coordinator of the affordable learning initiative at CSUMB. Grallo oversaw the distribution of grants – typically ranging from $500 to $2,000 – made available by the state to help pay for faculty members’ time in making the switch.

“Commercially published textbooks often come with power points, quizzes, supplementary materials that the instructor can use,” Grallo said. “But if you are using free materials, you are often in the position that you have to redesign the course and create all those supplementary materials on your own, which was what the grants were intended to support.”

Grallo encouraged faculty members to decide on textbooks well in advance, to allow the bookstore maximum opportunity to find used copies. She helped faculty members share ways they have used affordable materials to inform others about what might be available for their courses. And she compiled progress reports to the Chancellor’s Office about the initiative at CSUMB.

A Book-Free Class

When Browning Neddeau, an assistant professor in liberal studies, began teaching a course in arts in the school and community, the previous instructor had used several textbooks to cover the wide-ranging subject matter, which includes music, dance, theater and visual arts.

“Someone on campus said I should contact her (Grallo) because I was interested in moving this into being a book-free class. We had a meeting or two, and she was there as a resource to help me find material,” Neddeau said.

“I was able to cover everything with digital material, and I found resources through our library that students can download,” he said. “We also have a wonderful video library on campus, and there are videos there that relate to the course content as well.”

“For the students to come into the class and not have a textbook, they really appreciated that. And the readings were very targeted, and the students appreciate that part, too.”

Textbook Sticker Shock

When Ryan Luke, an assistant professor in kinesiology, was a doctoral student at Georgia State, he and his wife would help out at an off-campus bookstore during the beginning of semester rush.

“I was shocked at the bills that students would rack up. You would see undergrad students with seven, eight, nine hundred dollars worth of textbooks. And some of those students would buy a textbook and hardly ever read out of it,” Luke said.

That experience is hardly unique. The College Board estimates that the average college student spends more than $1,200 a year on books and learning materials.

When he became a faculty member at CSUMB, Luke wanted to save students some of that expense. He has created digital presentations using a variety of online tools and has shifted the focus of his courses away from traditional textbooks.

“I always tell the students, if there is some way I can get you to interact with the material, if you are watching it, listening to it, or reading it, I am happy with that.”

Luke said he and department chair Kent Adams have discussed the need for students to work directly with research articles, which reflect the current consensus on issues within the field and are available through academic journals and professional organizations.

“What we tried to do was to integrate more research into our course settings, and by doing that, especially in our advanced courses, there was not as much need for a textbook,” Luke said.

Lowering barriers to success

Lowering Barriers to Success

The CSU’s push for affordable learning materials is part of Graduation Initiative 2025, the effort to improve graduation rates on every CSU campus.

CSUMB faculty members agree that the effort has particular relevance on a campus that educates large numbers of first-generation and low-income students.

Burchett said by using affordable learning materials and by making study guides for tests such as the Graduate Record Exam freely and readily available, the university hopes to increase opportunities.

“We have students who want to go into very competitive graduate programs, where there is a wide range of expense,” Burchett said. “Some graduate programs are completely free, but they are very hard to get into. So if we can give students the resources that can help make them competitive to get into those programs, we’re giving students who are low-income and first generation the opportunity to afford to continue their education.

“That is critically important on a campus like ours where we have students who face a lot of barriers, and the students they are competing against maybe don’t have as many barriers.”