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College Is Expensive: Books Don’t Have to Be

Cutting down on costs for students and allowing instructors more flexibility, some classes are adopting open textbooks.

Clark’s Biology department is helping to pioneer the movement, known internationally as Open Educational Resources, and has adopted the openly available ‘Concepts of Biology’ textbook for a recently created course for nursing students.

“It’s free, that’s the best part,” said Justin Marvin, a student in Mark Bolke’s Biology 160 class. He carries the book with him on a flash drive. “The second best part is that it’s just a tab on my computer at home. It doesn’t take up any space in my bag.”

Students in the class can choose between a digital copy, an inexpensive printed version or a hardbound version. According to Bolke, more than half of one section prefers the printed version, with eight of 19 using a digital version.

“It’s very beneficial for students who are watching their student dollars,” Bolke said. “There’s a couple improvements that we’d like to suggest but overall it’s great. I think it’s a win-win situation for everyone.”

Librarian Kim Olson-Charles received two grants from Librarians as Open Education Leaders, a state project to encourage librarians to drum up support for OER at their schools. Olson-Charles has educated instructors about the availability of OER, as well as helped them to convert their classes. However she expected more support from students.

“I was always surprised that students weren’t more involved,” Olson-Charles said. “As a student myself recently, I’m mad about how much textbooks cost.”

Despite the benefits, it’s often a time-consuming process for an instructor to convert their class.

“You have to look for new materials and make sure they’re always up to date,” Olson-Charles said. “But, that’s kind of the fun part about being an instructor, too. They have the freedom to choose what they really want without being bound by a textbook. I think there’s support on both sides, but there’s a lot of extra work outside of instruction time.”

Some students in Biology 160 said the time of a class and the preference of an instructor are most important, but they would choose a class using OER over one using an expensive textbook. Unfortunately for students, there is no way for instructors to post textbook information on the registration system currently.

Susan Maxwell, project coordinator for a replacement administrative system, said that feature is being considered in the near future. Clark will be one of the first ten schools in Washington to use ctcLink, which in part will replace the registration system.

According to Maxwell, instructors would be able to post textbook information to the new system, but there might be better places for it.

“The challenge is that it would need to be updated and maintained regularly,” Maxwell said. “We’re trying to figure out who would do that, if that’s really important to students, if that’s the best place for that information.”

Apart from the course syllabus, students can currently find out the required textbook from the bookstore. Manager Monica Knowles has seen the trend continue to grow with college academic preparation, art, English and psychology classes using varying degrees of free resources.

“It’s not really widespread,” Knowles said. “It’s a short list right now, but this has grown pretty quickly in the past year.”

Buyer Marti Earhart works with instructors and textbook publishers to supply the bookstore. She said the adoption of OER has caused the bookstore to take on a new role.

“I’m hearing [students are] really happy about the whole idea that it’s free to them,” Earhart said. “But I’m also finding that a lot of students are quite desperate to have a printed copy so that’s where we’re finding a niche in providing these materials to them.”

The high cost of attending college is currently in the public eye. According to a December TIME article, legislators in 10 states are trying to make it possible to graduate without debt from in-state public colleges.

The Bellingham Herald reported Jan. 19 that Washington Democratic lawmakers proposed free tuition at community and technical colleges for students without a bachelor’s degree, albeit with no firm plan to fund it. Oregon passed a bill in July to cover the tuition of community college students who meet certain qualifications.

According to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s campaign website, the New College Compact would incorporate state and federal spending to reduce the cost for a student attending a public college in their state “by thousands of dollars.”

In November, The Washington Post reported that Bernie Sanders had inspired students at 110 colleges to demand the slashing of tuition and student debt and to increase pay for campus workers. The Vermont senator’s campaign calls for free tuition at public colleges and universities.

According to, many Republican candidates wish to expand charter schools and voucher programs and reduce federal involvement in education.

Clark College is simply focused on integrating OER.

“I’m thinking about [moving to OER in other classes],” Bolke said. “We’re just focusing on this class for now and maintaining the other classes as they are. But that discussion is going to happen in the department.”

A portrait of Kim Olsen-Charles
Kim Olson-Charles received two grants to educate instructors about Open Educational Resources. She continues to advocate OER as an alternative to expensive textbooks.

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