Last week OpenStax, the Rice University-based publisher of open educational resource (OER) materials, announced that according to their data more than 2.2 million students at 48% of colleges in the US and 1,150 outside the US are using OpenStax free textbooks, saving an estimated $177 million.
This is compelling data in its own right, and we are working on analysis around this organization and its model, but somewhat buried in the press release is another significant statement around what students currently spend on textbooks and what savings are possible with OER.
“Our community is creating a movement that will make a big impact on college affordability. The success of open textbooks like OpenStax have ignited competition in the textbook market, and textbook prices are actually falling for the first time in 50 years.”
As a result of the unprecedented downward shift in textbook prices, OpenStax will be decreasing its estimated student savings figure from $98.57 to $79.37 based on federal data. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics published a study in May stating the average undergraduate student spent $555.60 on required course materials for the academic year. Dividing that number by seven courses (the undergraduate average, according to enrollment data) comes out to $79.37 in savings for each student using an OpenStax book.
I have long argued that OER groups and others arguing for making college more affordable should use baseline numbers based on what students actually pay for textbooks, rather than the all-too-common $1,220 - $1,420 per year numbers from a misuse of College Board budget numbers (see chart at top of page 10 in this document). With OpenStax moving to new federal data showing $556 average expenditures, we should start to see more reliable estimates of student savings. Kudos to them.
However, this level of student spending should not be a surprise to anyone following the curricular materials market.
Our 2015 post "How Much Do College Students Actually Pay For Textbooks?", as well as a follow-up post, show in detail that we have had data for years showing that students roughly $600 per year on textbooks and related course materials, and that that number has been falling since at least 2008. Using data from the National Association of College Stores (NACS), we knew three years ago about the rough level of spending and the multi-year decline. NACS has continued to release annual updates, with the most recent public release from last summer:
What OpenStax refers to, however, is the new National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) restricted-use data from the US Department of Education's National Center on Education Statistics, showing $555.60 average student expenditures per year. Which is right in line with the NACS data.
We plan to explore the NPSAS data in more detail, as it provides rich data for crosstabs and exploration of student expenses. But for now, kudos to OpenStax for this change in student savings estimates, even if it is years overdue. I would hope that other OER advocates would follow their lead.