Opinion | Expand the use of OERs

By Mackenzie Oster, Staff Columnist

As the new school year unfolds, students are gearing up and getting ready to take on the financial burden of college expenses once again. But tuition isn’t the only thing emptying students’ wallets this year, as the cost of college textbooks is also rapidly rising.

According to the Government Accountability Office, textbook prices have risen 186% in two decades. The average student now pays around $900 annually on textbooks and supplies alone. With the 5% tuition increase for out-of-state students and 2.75% increase for in-state students here at Pitt, it’s important to be well-informed in order to get your money’s worth.

Students should take full advantage of the resources that the University offers, especially since the University has implemented Open Educational Resources. OERs include a plethora of material accessible online — such as textbooks, class lessons and video lectures — available via an Open License, which allows all students to use them.

The University has already taken the first steps to tackle the rising rate of textbook prices. As of January 2018, Pitt’s Student Government Board called for the adoption of OERs as well as open textbooks to help make resources for students more accessible and affordable.

While this is a step in the right direction, Pitt should continue to develop and inform both students and professors of such resources, ensuring that all materials used in class are accessible through OERs and open textbook materials.

If the University chose to follow through with this new implication by ensuring that students are only to use accessible material through the University, the financial burden placed on students would be greatly lifted.
“An ‘open textbook’ is defined as: a textbook written by education professionals and released online under an Open License permitting everyone to freely use, print, share, and adapt the material,” SGB wrote in a resolution to the University.
Yet the textbooks used in each course are up to the discretion of the professor, and OERs are not going to be utilized to their fullest potential until the University ensures that professors plan classes according to material available in OERs, especially once more Open Education Resources Grants are implemented and accessible. This way, students do not have to worry about purchasing outside texts. However, many students are unaware that Pitt even offers such resources, as the majority of professors stick to using expensive printed copies of textbooks.
In fact, a study revealed by the Babson Survey Research Group revealed that 58.1% of more than 3,000 higher education faculty members surveyed around the United States reported that they are not aware of the option of OERs or any alternatives to traditional textbooks in their courses.

Nicole Allen, an employee of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, said reports reveal evidence that links high textbook prices with negative academic impacts.

“Whether it is doing worse in a course without access to the required textbook or taking longer to reach graduation, it is clear that the issue of textbook costs has evolved from a simple financial concern to a threat to student success,” Allen revealed in a statement to U.S. News. “If the current system cannot provide every student with affordable access to the course materials they need, then we need a better system.”

Pitt’s implementation of OERs could be a miraculous step toward more accessible higher education if they continue the advancement of such resources. This is especially true in the case of academic programs related to biology or chemistry — classes that require more costly materials and texts. 

As a premed student at Pitt, sophomore biology major Bailey Bower said her classes required her to spend roughly $1,000 each year solely on textbooks — not including the goggles, lab coat and other materials her courses require.

“I have never heard of having the option of OERs at Pitt before or else I definitely would be utilizing those resources,” Bower said.

A study conducted at Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts exemplifies the benefits of utilizing open-access texts. Greenfield has adopted open-access texts in three of the six required general education courses, which has allowed students to go from spending the national average of $153 to as little as only $31 per course.

If OERs become a recognizable and everyday resource to students at Pitt, the financial burden of higher education could be tremendously relieved. So let’s take it upon ourselves as students to spread the word about these resources, and encourage the University to continue to expand and develop the use of OERs here at Pitt to give our wallets a nice rest.