Z as in Zero: Increasing College Access and Success through Zero-Textbook-Cost Degrees

**This is a cross-posting from an entry I wrote on the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation blog on Jan. 6, 2015**

The Hewlett Foundation gives nearly $8 million each year to get Open Educational Resources  (OER) into mainstream use. We believe that one of the natural consequences of widespread OER adoption will be an increase in students’ educational access and success—with the average U.S. college student now spending $1200 each year on textbooks and other course materials on top of tuition, it’s easy to see how those costs are hindering lower income students from attending college. And that’s not all: a 2014 study by the Student Public Interest Research Group showed that a majority of college students actually base course selection decisions on textbook prices and avoid courses with expensive content. Other students simply don’t purchase required textbooks or show up on the first day of class without a textbook because the cheaper used version they found online is still at the online merchant’s warehouse. Amazingly, the cost of textbooks now sometimes exceeds the cost of tuition, particularly at the community colleges that have traditionally provided a lower-cost alternative (e.g., programs at Cerritos College in California).

But there is light at the end of this dark textbook tunnel. Last year, faculty and administrators at Tidewater Community College (TCC) in Virginia accomplished something remarkable. Relying heavily on OER, TCC designed a curriculum that allows students to skip nearly $3700 in textbook costs and achieve a two-year degree in Business Administration. The “Z-Degree,” as it’s known, has had some incredible impacts. In the first year of Z-Degree implementation, TCC saw a significant increase in the percentage of students completing courses with a C or better, while simultaneously cutting the cost to graduate by 20-30%. TCC also saw a significant decrease in withdrawal rates among students enrolled in the Z-Degree. In a recent report, TCC administrators indicated that they are hopeful that other institutions will follow their lead: “Tidewater intentionally developed a model that can be reproduced. All of their curriculum materials are openly available under a Creative Commons Attribution License, and there is a wealth of additional open resources available.” Indeed, several other institutions and systems are developing or have developed their own zero-textbook-cost degrees, including the Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), the Virginia Community College System, the Washington State Community College System, Thomas Edison State College, and the University System of Maryland.

The zero-textbook-cost degrees at institutions like TCC and NOVA represent models that other institutions can adopt or adapt to help their own students lower the costs of higher education while increasing college access and success. Additionally, the OER used in these model degrees allow faculty to select, adapt, and/or create materials that are aligned with the learning outcomes of their courses and learning profiles of their students, giving them greater flexibility and academic freedom in course design and delivery. Importantly,  the zero-textbook-cost degree is a concept that is easily understood with relatively low barriers to implementation. A significant investment from philanthropy and government to encourage other institutions across the country to experiment with this model has the potential to start a movement. Indeed, this kind of movement has the potential to effectively solve the textbook cost and access issues faced by students  And since OER is the most practical means for establishing zero-textbook-cost degrees, it could also directly promote large-scale adoption and adaptation of OER in higher education (a goal of particular importance to the Hewlett Foundation), creating an infrastructure for improving teaching and learning through adaptable, localizable curricular materials.

I see two ways that the zero-textbook-cost degree movement could take hold on campuses: a large-scale persuasion campaign directed toward colleges to convince them to do the right thing;  or forcing colleges to create this type of degree, primarily through legislation that would mandate (and hopefully fund) their creation. Persuasion makes more sense to me. Given the important role of academic freedom on American campuses, colleges have traditionally resisted reform efforts imposed on them from the outside and often find ways to work around such changes rather than embrace them. A bottom-up approach driven by faculty and embraced by college administrators is far more likely to lead to changes that will be broadly accepted on campus and endure.

The persuasive approach could include three main components: (a) spreading the word about the zero-textbook-cost degree concept, (b) direct fiscal incentives for institutions to establish their own degrees, and (c) research about the impact of the degrees on college access and success to encourage further efforts.

Spreading the Word. Communicating about the concept by highlighting the work of institutions that have established zero-textbook-cost degrees has great potential to attract mainstream media and create an atmosphere of excitement around the idea. Many non-profit organizations have expressed interest in offering their expertise on how to share the story of the Z-degree. Support for such activities could increase the likelihood of successfully bringing the concept to scale.

Direct Incentives. The second component to this approach could involve directly incentivizing institutions to establish their own pathways for students to complete a degree without textbook costs. With funding from philanthropy and government, a grant competition could be created where institutions propose plans for establishing their own zero-textbook-cost degrees and apply for funding to support their efforts. A competitive RFP process would allow institutions to determine the approaches that work best for them in their own contexts and allow them to maintain academic freedom. The scope and potential impact of the competition would be determined by the funders and other organizations involved and the amount of funding available. An existing or newly formed non-profit could facilitate the RFP process, similar to the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (HASTAC) funded by the MacArthur Foundation.

Research. As zero-textbook-cost degrees are implemented across the country, research could be conducted to analyze the impact of degree establishment on student access and success, as well as on faculty pedagogical practice. Metrics related to access and success might include credit loads, withdrawal rates, persistence rates, pass rates, and actual cost savings. Establishing a research agenda and including data sharing requirements in the RFP could lead to deeper understanding of the impact of the program and lead to further expansion of the concept throughout the U.S. higher education system.

The Hewlett Foundation, in conjunction with Student PIRGS, SPARC, Creative Commons, the Open Education Consortium, and several other non-profit organizations will be convening interested parties over the next several months. We welcome your views on the details of the approach described here and any alternatives you might suggest.  If your organization is interested in joining the conversation, partnering, or simply learning more about this opportunity, please contact us at Education@hewlett.org.

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