Affordable College Textbook Act Seeks to Ease Students’ Financial Burdens

By Andrew Carney

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (UTC/The Loop) – UTC students rejoice upon hearing about a bill that could provide them with free textbooks.

SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, explains that the Affordable College Textbook Act (S.1704/H.R.3538) “will reduce the cost of textbooks at U.S. colleges and universities by expanding the use of open textbooks (and other open educational resources) that everyone can use, adapt and share freely.”

This fact sheet offered by SPARC details what benefits the Affordable College Textbook Act will offer to students, teachers, and universities:

  1. Creates a grant program to support pilot programs at colleges and universities to create and
    expand the use of open textbooks with priority for those programs that will achieve the
    highest savings for students.
  2. Ensures that any open textbooks or educational materials created using program funds will be
    freely and easily accessible to the public.
  3. Requires entities who receive funds to complete a report on the effectiveness of the program
    in achieving savings for students.
  4. Improves existing requirements for publishers to make all textbooks and other educational
    materials available for sale individually rather than as a bundle.
  5. Requires the Government Accountability Office to provide an updated report on the price
    trends of college textbooks to Congress by 2017.

The Affordable College Textbook Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate in November 14 of last year by Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.). Senator Durbin has previously worked in his state to lower the cost of textbooks for students. In his press release, Durbin mentions, “Over three years ago, I worked to secure funding for the University of Illinois to complete an open textbook project.”

Senator Durbin’s efforts led to the release of a textbook, Sustainability: A Comprehensive Foundation, which has been used at Illinois University campuses. This textbook is part of a “Massive Open Online Course” that Durbin says has been used by at least 60,000 students and the University has been contacted by other colleges about using it.

Had you heard about the Affordable College Textbook Act before this?

The previous successes of Senator Durbin will be expanded upon by this bill, by making future textbooks like it available. Senator Franken was happy to support the bill after seeing the success of Durbin’s prior efforts. He said in the press release, “In the fight to make college more affordable and accessible for Minnesota families we can’t overlook the rising costs of textbooks,” said Franken. “I’m proud to introduce this bill with Senator Durbin because it will help provide cheaper alternatives to traditional textbooks and keep more money in students’ pockets where it belongs.”

This bill expands upon the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act, which sought to provide students with more information about college textbook costs. Senator Durbin’s press release explains that the law “required textbook publishers to disclose to faculty the cost of a textbooks to their students, required schools to publish textbook information in course catalogues when practicable, and required publishers to offer unbundled supplemental materials so students had choices.”  The provisions of this law took effect on July 1, 2010 and are still in effect.

Even with students receiving extra information from publishers, a 2013 GAO report released information that textbook prices are continuing to rise. Despite the Higher Education Opportunity Act requiring more information be provided to students through compliance of the publishers, it does not mandate a limit on the amount that a textbook can cost. This has translated to an increase in the already $30 billion industry and strains students further.

Credit: Jon Sall

Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) introduced the Affordable College Textbook Act in October 2013

 The Affordable College Textbook Act does not intend to set limits on the price structure of textbooks released by publishers, but it does intend to provide more open source resources to students, which will create more pressure on textbook publishers to remain competitive in pricing and offer reasons to choose their textbooks over otherwise free ones. U.S. PIRG Higher Education Associate Ethan Senack praises Durbin and Franken for the bill, and said that “for students, the cost-saving potential of open textbooks is massive – around 80-100% compared to published textbooks”, which will lead to a better education for students. U.S. PIRG found that “seven of ten current college students have skipped buying a textbook because it was too expensive”, a concerning figure which this bill hopes to alleviate.

The Affordable College Textbook Act was assigned to a Congressional committee on November 19, who will consider the bill before sending it to a vote in the Senate. To follow along with the progress of the bill, visit its page on Congress.gov. Govtrack.us, a site that monitors government bills, gives more information about the bill’s progress, and offers it a grim prognosis of passing committee with a 1% pass rate. It references that “only 11% of bills made it past committee and only about 3% were enacted in 2011–2013.”

Students interested in seeing this bill progress further in Congress should express this to their local legislators and assist in raising awareness about it as it is examined by a Congressional committee. This will show Congress that mandates are important to providing students with assistance in easing their financial burdens in the face of continually rising educational costs. They can also visit http://www.congressweb.com/sparc/23 to take action.

For other coverage about the textbook industry and issues students encounter with them, visit these other links:

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