The cost of college textbooks has continuously increased. (Connor Cox/Emerald)

The Oregon Student Association is championing HB 2919 in the 2021 state legislative session, which would require public universities and community colleges “to prominently display total costs of all required course materials and fees” during course registration for most classes.

The bill demands fee transparency for a minimum 75% of an institution’s courses. ASUO State Secretary Aaron Lewis, who’s helping with OSA’s campaign, said this number was a compromise to garner support from university and faculty lobbying groups. They settled on 75% because institutions believed 100% fee transparency would be impossible given last minute turnover and the fact that some faculty members don’t get course assignments until after student registration deadlines,OSA Legislative Director Emily Wanous said.

Lewis said fee transparency is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic because many students are spread more financially thin.

According to OSA’s talking points for the bill, 40% of Oregon community college students and 23% of university students said they took fewer classes as a result of textbook costs. The same 2018 study found that 18% of community college students and 28% of university students performed poorly in a class due to being unable to afford course materials.

Textbook costs are also rapidly growing, making it even more difficult for students to afford course materials. The OSA talking points include that the price of textbooks grew by 82% between 2002 and 2012, a figure three times greater than the rate of inflation across that time. 

“Part of the reason that ASUO tackled this project is because we really think that rising textbook costs constitute a barrier to equitable education,” said Lewis. He said when students are budgeting for the year, textbooks usually come after more immediate costs like housing, food and tuition on their priority lists. This means if a student is stretched for money, textbooks are normally the first thing to go.

“I’ve talked to many students and had many friends, many classmates who will not buy books,” said Lewis, “not because they don’t want to and not because they don’t want to participate in class, but because they literally cannot afford to.”

Wanous said knowing course material fees in advance will allow students to adequately budget for classes before the course begins rather than learning about textbook costs on the first day. “They find out that they have to pay $250 for a textbook, Wanous said. “Some students are unable to afford that. Therefore they don’t buy it, which therefore impacts classroom success as well as graduation rates, which then directly affects Oregon’s economy because we’re not able to fulfill labor demands.”

She said displaying course material costs is already common practice in states like Washington.

Lewis also pointed to outdated syllabi as an issue he’s encountered when trying to buy course materials ahead of time. He said he’s purchased a textbook in advance only to learn the material wasn’t actually required on the first day of class.

Knowing required materials ahead of time would allow Lewis and other students to avoid similar situations. “This bill is common sense legislation that allows students to better plan for their financial success and ultimately will positively impact the university,” he said, “because they will have healthier, more academically engaged students who have the right materials for their courses. They’re going to see better educational outcomes as a result.”

Wanous explained that asking faculty to display course materials will likely incentivize them to adopt lower cost resources in order to encourage students to take their class. “If students are able to see how much the materials will cost, they will choose a course that costs less rather than choosing a course where a book costs $300 or $100,” she said.

ASUO Policy Secretary Maya Ward said she’s communicated with other Oregon public schools — especially Portland State and Western Oregon University — about OSA and textbook affordability efforts. “We’re excited to be working with other universities,” said Ward, “because we think it gives us more power and backing and shows that it’s an important issue for students.”

Ward said she sees the OSA bill as an opportunity to spread information about textbook affordability resources that already exist on campus. Ward specifically pointed to Open Educational Resources and Rayne Vieger, UO’s eLearning and OER librarian, as a focal point of existing efforts.

Vieger’s job includes working with faculty to help them find low- and no-cost alternatives to expensive textbooks. Among these duties, she helps staff integrate OERs — an assortment of teaching materials licensed as creative commons and therefore available for free use — into their course materials. She also co-leads UO’s Textbook Affordability Task Force, which launched fall term with the objective of drawing up a strategic plan for textbook affordability work on campus. 

Although Vieger said the faculty members she works with are receptive to using OERs and other low-cost materials, she doesn’t have comprehensive data about who is actually utilizing those resources. She said part of the task force’s goal is to create a method of gathering that information, so she can do targeted outreach towards the departments with higher material costs.

Currently, instructors have the option to indicate that their courses are low-cost on DuckWeb, but Rick Stoddart, the UO library assessment and strategic communication communicator, said the function doesn’t provide a complete list of the instructors choosing to use low- or no-cost resources. Additionally, there is no way for students to specifically search for affordable classes — something Vieger said she wanted to explore with the task force.

However, not all faculty members are open to using OERs in their classes. Both Ward and Wanous said they’ve experienced resistance from professors. This disagreement is often on the basis of academic freedom — the idea that university faculty should have the ability to teach the content they want with the materials they choose. 

Vieger said low- and no-cost options can also be difficult for faculty because they’re less likely to include instructor resources like powerpoints or question banks. Additionally, if an instructor is teaching a specialized course, it’s less likely that OERs that relate to the course material exist. But Vieger said she and the subject liaisons she works want to help faculty explore other options to reduce course fees.

Stoddart said there’s a flip side to pushback on the basis of academic freedom. Because OERs are creative commons, faculty can tailor them to more accurately fit course themes in a way that would not be possible with copyrighted work. Vieger said one of the values of using OERs is that faculty have the ability to correct mistakes and make materials more accessible.

Stoddart said he saw this adaptability in action when he worked at the University of Idaho and noticed that a faculty member would alter a course’s readings based on class discussions from the week before. “I thought that was a really cool way to be responsive to the students and also create something,” said Stoddart. “You’re literally creating a new text, and it was really neat that they could remix that text based on the students and the student needs.”

Lewis acknowledged that balancing student equity with a professor’s academic freedom can create conflict, but he said the faculty he’s talked with about textbook affordability have been generally responsive to using low- and no-cost materials. 

“Academic freedom is ultimately irrelevant if students aren’t equitably accessing their courses and if students aren’t having the chance to learn the material,” he said. “Because what you’re doing when you keep textbook costs high is you’re excluding students from taking that course at all. Why does it matter what you’re teaching if no one’s taking your class?”