One of the longest standing positions of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges is to lower costs for community college students, particularly around textbooks. As a result, the ASCCC was delighted when, in 2016, the governor signed Senate Bill 1359 (SB 1359; Block, 2016), which requires all segments of public higher education in California to “clearly highlight, by means that may include a symbol or logo in a conspicuous place on the online campus course schedule, the courses that exclusively use digital course materials that are free of charge to students and may have a low-cost option for print versions.” That bill, chaptered as CEC 66406.9, meant that as of January 2018, all community colleges were required to designate courses with no cost in their online schedules, either with their own notation or with the notation developed by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.
Locally, colleges or districts should have a process for determining what courses qualify for the SB 1359 designation. For example, courses that have never required the purchase of a text should not be flagged with this designation. Likewise, courses that require students to purchase an access code for some required course component would be excluded. The requirement is that the college uses “a symbol or logo in a conspicuous place on the online campus course schedule.” The law indicates that “the courses that exclusively use digital course materials that are free of charge to students” should be evident upon an examination of the course schedule, not after taking additional steps to view the details of the course, such as by accessing information specifically regarding the text.
While SB 1359 is a step in the right direction, it only mandates the identification of courses with no textbook costs. While encouraging the use of no-cost materials is laudable, this effort fails to recognize faculty efforts to dramatically decrease costs to students without achieving the ideal of zero cost. With the passage of AB 798 (Bonilla, 2015), colleges were offered grants in 2015[KGM1] and again in 2016 in exchange for demonstrating that their faculty had reduced course costs by a minimum of 30% in up to 50 course sections across all disciplines by adopting Open Education Resources (OER). More than 30 community colleges statewide submitted applications demonstrating the willingness of faculty to adopt OER materials in their courses, and while many of these courses reduced their course costs to $0 by adopting OER, others were not able to do so due to a variety of reasons. In many cases, for example, while OER materials were available for the text of the course, workbooks or other ancillary materials that are needed for students to be successful were not available through OER. While courses might have been able to demonstrate a reduction in costs by 80% or 90%, those sections would not qualify to be marked as “Zero Textbook Cost.” In fact, in a review of the sections that qualified for a grant under AB 798, more than 25% would not qualify as zero cost, even if they provided a significant course savings to students.
The California community college system is not the only group looking at reducing textbook costs. The California State University system is also aware of the issues around textbook costs, and to that end not only did they participate in the AB 798 grant process, but they also undertook their Affordable Learning $olutions (AL$) program, which designates courses which have reduced costs for texts and other materials. The CSU AL$ defines “low cost” as courses in which the text and materials would cost the students less than $50 out of pocket, and those courses are designated as such in the university schedule. In addition, while the University of California system was not part of the AB 798 grant program, many UC faculty have engaged in these conversations; UC faculty participated in the California Open Education Resources Council with their CCC and CSU colleagues and continue to be open to suggestions from the field. IN addition, as discussed in the February 2018 Rostrum, courses that use OER are transferable and articulate to both systems.
Community colleges should follow the example of the CSU AL$ program. Course sections that are advertised as lower cost, even if they are not cost free, may be more attractive to students, especially given that many students do not buy their texts or other materials because they cannot afford to do so. Having sections that are identified as low-cost might not only increase enrollment but might also help to promote greater equity, not just for traditionally underserved students but also for students who have limited resources to spend on books, such as those on the GI Bill or with Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS) vouchers. Students on financial aid might also be drawn to sections with lower costs, especially in fields where the texts are traditionally prohibitively expensive.
Local discussions regarding the use of a low-cost identifier must be thoughtful and inclusive. Establishing a threshold for “low-cost” is likely to be a robust conversation. While less than $50 might be deemed appropriate by the CSU, that specific cost may or may not be appropriate for a community college’s local population. Colleges should ask whether students are being well-served if course sections identified as low-cost can have costs that range from $5 to just shy of $50, as well as what potential negative consequences might be associated with creating pressure on faculty to decrease costs. While the intended effect of employing such an identifier is commendable, the impact should be considered thoughtfully.
Upon ensuring that their colleges are fully compliant with SB 1359, local senates may wish to engage in a dialogue regarding the employment of a low-cost identifier. While colleges can choose to clarify for students that the costs for some course sections are lower than others, ultimately the instructor of record for each course section must determine whether OER or lower cost materials are the correct pedagogical choice for the course. If a faculty member chooses to reduce the cost of the course for students, colleges should promote those actions and be transparent to students about the costs associated with the materials. If the goal as a system is to educate students and to do so at a reasonable cost, letting them know about reduced costs in course sections is the equitable and logical thing to do.