American students work hard enough to afford college—and they need a break.

If education is really fundamental, then what happens when it’s not affordable?

There’s no way anyone can reach their goal of attaining a college degree without doing some heavy reading—by deeply engaging with assigned texts. Those marathon cram sessions, office hours with teachers assistants, and nagging last-minute questions to professors all characterize the undergraduate study experience. And whether anyone likes it or not, textbooks themselves are a necessary part of that process.

Paying for college is already a herculean task for many students and—if they’re fortunate—the families who support them. With rising costs at both public and private institutions, a little relief could go a long way in making higher education a reality for many Americans. If a free public university education—as presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) proposes—isn’t a reality just yet, then the least the government could do is make college textbooks free.

For many students, college is the first time they’re asked to pay for their own textbooks, a move away from the hand-me-downs used in elementary and high schools. You know, the age-worn books that probably haven’t been replaced with new editions for at least 15 or 20 years in most public schools? The books that big publishers know will be recycled for so long that they leave a good 10 or more lines inside each textbook’s front cover to sign students’ names? Those aren’t really an option in college.

It’s a win-win-win situation, with the university paying (at most) relatively small fees to publishers and authors, all to provide a consolidated learning resource for students and instructors alike.

After high school graduation day, unless students are lucky enough to find low-cost, used, or free books for classes, they’re often forced to pay hefty prices. According to a report from the Chicago Tribune, the College Board says that students at a four-year public college pay an annual average of $1,200 dollars on books and supplies alone. It’s why Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and a number of co-sponsors have proposed the Affordable College Textbook Act, which would make some of those books free in the form of “open textbooks”—largely buttressed by government education grants.

“Federal investment in expanding the use of open educational resources could significantly lower college textbook costs and reduce financial barriers to higher education,” the bill’s language states, as reported by the Tribune’s Becky Yerak. “The U.S. Department of Education would oversee the competitive grant process, which would support pilot programs aiming to expand the use of open textbooks,” Yerak noted, adding that “applicants would need to estimate the cost savings for students.”

The concept of an open textbook isn’t all too foreign for many students. In some university classrooms—of both in-person and Internet-based varieties—savvy instructors help cut book costs by seeking out permission to reproduce portions of various texts, creating a printed or online coursepack for each class. It’s a win-win-win situation, with the university paying (at most) relatively small fees to publishers and authors, all to provide a consolidated learning resource for students and instructors alike.

If that doesn’t seem like a realistic alternative, a way of cultivating an “open textbook” culture of sorts, it’s actually more pragmatic when considering the book purchasing habits of most American adults.

I’d already picked up work-study job shifts, and any odd jobs I could find, but that alone wasn’t enough to pay the roughly $500 to $1,000 textbook expense each academic quarter.

According to a 2012 report from NPR’s Planet Money, the average American spends an infinitesimal fraction of their annual income on books, magazines, and newspapers. How tiny, exactly? Try 0.2 percent. Compared to the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate of the median U.S. household income, which is roughly $52,000—representing the middle 50 percent along a broad spectrum of incomes—and the dollars and cents break down to about $1,000 spent total. 

That’s $200 less than the average college student—which may not seem like a lot of money, but it makes a world of difference for many who struggle to pay for basic expenses, including food, during their studies. There’s a big difference between $1,200 in books when you’re making $50K a year and when you’re living off PB&J.

It’s an uphill climb that I know all too well. My freshman year of college coincided with the beginning of the economic downturn—and at the same time, both my parents lost their jobs. I’d already picked up work-study shifts and any odd jobs I could find, but that alone wouldn’t have been enough to cover the roughly $500 to $1,000 textbook expense each academic quarter. I still had to pay for food, transportation, and other basic incidentals—and had nothing left for books.

My only saving grace was that I’d earned private scholarships and a ton of grants to attend the elite private institution of my choice—which was always my dream school—and one of those scholarships (namely, from Point Foundation) included book expense coverage.

But for students who didn’t have family financial support—or a scholarship to help pay for their books—it meant working full-time or evening shifts after school to pay for books. And at the time, for many of those entry-level jobs students were working, many co-eds were competing with the adults who had been economically displaced by the recession. Although Hillary Clinton said during the Democratic debate that students should contribute something to their college education—and not get off scot-free—the sad truth is that they’re not always able to contribute much. They work with what they have to make ends meet—or die trying.

The biggest barrier to a sharing economy around college textbooks is adoption from instructors, educational institutions, and, yes, government support.

An “open textbook” culture—supported by law and government grants—would cut the out-of-pocket costs of education significantly, giving every American student a book scholarship all their own. As a student, my online coursepacks came at no expense, and my paper coursepacks cost no more than $60. And with more than 400 million openly licensed materials, as OpenSource.com notes, the biggest barrier to a sharing economy around college textbooks is adoption from instructors, educational institutions, and, yes, government support.

When it comes to college affordability, every little bit helps. And until free public college education becomes a reality for all American students, an “open textbook” policy is the least our leaders can do to provide an educational and economic stimulus for all. 

Derrick Clifton is the deputy opinion editor for the Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture, and social justice. Follow Derrick on Twitter: @DerrickClifton.

Image via College Degrees 360/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

Derrick Clifton

Derrick Clifton

Derrick Clifton is an identity and culture reporter and columnist. His work has appeared on NBC News, the Guardian, Vox, the Root, Quartz, MSNBC, HLN, and Mic. He is the communications manager for ProPublica Illinois. 

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