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Open-source textbooks lighten students’ financial load


GRCC students are using free, open-source textbooks and saving a total of more than $3 million this year. Students Matthew Grotenhuis and Hunter Crum say the option takes weight off their shoulders financially, and they see it benefiting many of their peers.

Plus, they say the easy-to-use, immediately available digital resources fit in with what they like and need as tech-savvy college students.

Grotenhuis and Crum are among hundreds of students saving big money through GRCC’s partnership with an online resource that provides free high-quality, peer-reviewed digital textbooks through OpenStax, Rice University’s open educational resources program.

With annual textbook expenses ranging from $1,000 to $1,300 for full-time students, it can be the difference between success or struggling through school. — Michael Vargo, GRCC dean of the School of Arts and Sciences

From left, GRCC students Hunter Crum and Matthew Grotenhuis pull up their OpenStax resources

The program is designed to provide textbooks for popular courses, many introductory, in the first two years of undergraduate education. About 70 GRCC faculty members have switched. The textbooks are available in math, science, social science, humanities, business and advanced placement courses.

Grotenhuis, who said he normally pays $50 to $200 per textbook, used the resource for his philosophy class.

“I think it’s very useful for a couple reasons,” he said. “It saved me a bunch of money. It’s also really convenient because I don’t have to drag around a big textbook — it’s all online.”

Crum agreed. He has used the digital resources for philosophy, chemistry and history. Not only has it saved him hundreds of dollars, he also prefers reading online and using computer options to easily reference subjects and words.

“I honestly just like it to study. I find it easier to use… I’m able to search for exactly the words and phrases I need,” said Crum, who admitted he once took photos of pages of an expensive textbook instead of buying it. “With it being free, that’s huge, and honestly, I like not carrying around books.”

Professor Michael Vargo, GRCC dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, wants to expand GRCC’s use of open-source resources even more

Millions Saved

GRCC is fifth in the top 10 colleges for the number of students– 35,421,  served through OpenStax– for an estimated savings of $3.27 million this school year.

The cost of commercial textbooks has increased dramatically above the rate of inflation in recent decades, said Professor Michael Vargo, GRCC dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. With annual textbook expenses ranging from $1,000 to $1,300 for full-time students, that can be the difference between success or struggling through school. “Most students report not having purchased a textbook because of the cost,” Vargo said.

“People in our population can’t afford (commercial textbooks) any longer,” he added. “Our mission is to provide access to higher education to everyone in our community who is looking for it. We embrace that.

“I think that is one of the reasons that the faculty here embraced this initiative so enthusiastically,” Vargo said. “I genuinely really love this initiative.”

A recent internal GRCC survey suggested about 45 percent of students qualify for a definition of food insecure, which is comparable to recent national estimates. Textbook cost savings can make a big difference, and even allow them to get through college more quickly. It’s well known, Vargo said, that the longer a student takes to get through college the less likely they are to finish.

“There’s national research that suggests students are taking the money they are saving from not having to purchase textbooks and buying more credit hours.”

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What’s behind the soaring cost of college textbooks

The High Cost of College Textbooks Explained

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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