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Oregon State surveys students, collects local data to advocate for zero-cost textbooks

Editor’s note: This story is a companion piece to a blog post by Stefanie Buck, director of Oregon State University’s Open Educational Resources Unit, on the Open Oregon Educational Resources website.

By Elena Moffet

We all know soaring textbook costs have a negative impact on students.

What many people don’t recognize is that these costs often go beyond a student’s bank account — impacting their focus, engagement, attrition and overall success in class.

Take, for example, results from a 2018 Florida survey which found that 64%-66% of students often don’t buy the required textbook for a course. Additionally, some students don’t take a class or withdraw from a class because of textbook costs. A 2021 survey from U.S. Public Interest Research Group surfaced similar patterns.

These numbers didn’t surprise Stefanie Buck, director of the Open Educational Resources Unit at Oregon State University Ecampus. But they didn’t satisfy her either.

Buck wanted to get a better understanding of how textbook costs affect Oregon State students specifically. To find out, she ran a modified version of the Florida survey at Oregon State in March 2022.

This was a time-intensive process that included getting IRB review, building the survey in Qualtrics and creating a distribution plan that would promote a higher response rate. While it was not an easy process, the results were enlightening.

Four key takeaways from the Oregon State survey results

  1. 61% of respondents do not purchase their textbooks because of cost
    This means that in any given class, half the students may not have the textbook. However, it’s important to point out that many students said they did not purchase the textbook because they were unsure if they would need it. According to open-ended responses, many waited until the second or third week to purchase the textbook. This warrants further investigation and is an important reminder to faculty — there should be no precedent for requiring costly textbooks that ultimately go unopened.
  2. Students engage in various behaviors to reduce the cost of their textbooks
    Strategies include sharing the textbook with a friend, using the library reserves or downloading an illegal copy. Some didn’t purchase the textbook and “hoped for the best.” Buck also found that 38% don’t register for a course, 5% take fewer classes, 18% drop a course and 14% withdraw from a course because of textbook costs. This delays degree completion for students and means a potential loss of tuition revenue for these departments.
  3. Textbook costs impact students of color more
    Buck modified the Florida survey to include questions about the ethnicity, Pell-eligibility and first-generation status of respondents. Across these three groupings, she found that traditionally underrepresented students were more likely to take fewer courses and drop courses. They were also more likely to withdraw from a course and to self-identify as having “failed a course because I could not afford to buy the textbook.” Textbook costs are another barrier for these students, and it is one that faculty can directly impact by choosing open-source materials.
  4. Local data DOES matter
    Collecting data from Oregon State students did reveal subtle differences in how they respond to textbook costs. For example, Buck found that the drop and withdraw rates are lower for Oregon State respondents than what we see in Florida’s survey results, but a higher rate of OSU respondents identified as choosing to take fewer classes. The latter can be hard to track, so this insight is valuable in considering future actions and outreach. Other OER leaders who choose to survey students at their universities will likely unveil their own unique insights — having local data makes a difference in how you move forward.

“It’s not easy to come by good data,” Buck said about running the survey.  “In fact, it is downright frustrating on occasion. There is a lot of data that we OER leaders must track and running an institution-wide survey is a daunting task.”

But this experience has made it clear to Buck that efforts like these do make a difference. She is presenting her findings to faculty and administrators across Oregon State and even presented to OSU’s new president, Jayathi Y. Murthy.

Making higher education more affordable is a big priority for Oregon State, and one of Buck’s next audiences will be at the Think Affordable Summit on March 7. This event will feature presentations from leaders across Oregon State who are working to reduce the cost-burden of higher education.

Want to get involved? Here are some actions you can take:

  1. If you’re an Oregon State instructor, consider using no-cost course materials. Learn more on the OERU website or reach out to Stefanie Buck to get started.
  2. If you’re an Oregon State advisor, administrator or faculty member, please register to attend the Think Affordable Summit and join us on March 7.
  3. If you’re an OER leader at your university, consider running your own student survey, so you can better advocate for students. You can learn more about Buck’s process, along with tips and reflections, on the Open Oregon blog.

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