Open Textbooks: The Billion Dollar Solution (2nd Edition)


The cost of textbooks and course materials has increased at three times the rate of inflation since the 1970s. While the astronomical increase in textbook costs has plateaued in recent years, the student experience has remained the same. Students continue to skip buying assigned course materials due to cost a similar rates.  As a result, students now spend more than $3 billion of financial aid dollars a year on course materials.

In the past decade, faculty, colleges and universities, and university systems have embraced the cost-saving potential of free open educational resources (OER), teaching, learning, and research materials that are openly licensed for use, adaptation, or redistribution at no cost. The first edition of this report highlighted the success of five pioneering colleges and universities who invested early in grant programs for faculty to transition from traditional textbooks to OER, create new open course materials, or peer review existing open course materials.

Since then, faculty awareness and adoption of OER has increased significantly. In 2015-16, only  5 percent of instructors and 8 percent of those teaching introductory courses reported using OER as required course materials. By 2019-20, the figures had risen to 14 percent and 26 percent, respectively.

This increase in faculty and awareness of OER and faculty OER adoption rates did not happen by accident. Faculty who are aware of OER initiatives are three to four times more likely to have adopted an OER textbook than those are not. Hundreds of colleges and universities have invested in and expanded their OER grant initiatives, open pedagogy has developed significantly, and state governments and the Department of Education have funded the development and adoption of open textbooks.

Though hundreds of Open Textbook Initiatives have launched, little has been done to document their impact or codify best practices. In the second edition of this report, the Student PIRGs undertook the first of its kind review of OER grant programs across the country to illuminate their successes and share recommendations from practitioners across the country. This survey covers data from 61 grant programs in 32 U.S. states and British Columbia that have, to date, save students more than $310 million in textbook costs.

Key Findings

Key Finding 1: Every dollar invested in OER Grants can save students $10 – $20 dollars. Faculty members often continue teaching with open course materials once they switch to them, so established grant programs can see long term returns on their investments. One time grants to faculty lead to year over year savings for students. The best cost to return ratio of programs we surveyed was $51 dollars saved for every $1 invested.

Key Finding 2: Grant Programs started during the pandemic have already saved students more than $2.5 million dollars. Eighteen new grant programs, 29% of those surveyed, were started between 2020 – 2022. Many distributed their first round of grants at the time of the survey and did not have data yet on the total savings for students.

Key Finding 3: 57% of grant programs receive little to no institutional support outside of the staff responsible for the program. While almost all respondents used a variety of tactics to reach departments and professors themselves, more than half received either no support from any other departments or support from only one other department in the university.

Key Finding 4: Campuses use grant programs to fit their local needs. While most grant programs fund OER adoption, writing, and remixing or adding to an existing OER, more than a third of institutions offer more flexible funding for projects such as creating or remixing open homework assignments or supplemental course materials, taking OER workshops, developing OER Pathways, and more.

Key Finding 5: Respondents coalesced around these two best practices for implementing new grant programs and improving existing ones.

  • Build a team to support the program. Whether the program has dedicated staff or not, establishing an OER Committee can help bring important stakeholders to the table to grow the program and engage departments that may not otherwise be engaged. Program managers engaged especially with the Centers for Teaching and Learning, Student Governments, Academic Departments and Deans, and Academic Affairs to help market their programs.
  • Establish a record keeping system and stick with it. Establish clear metrics before the program launches for measurements like cost savings, students impacted, and courses impacted. Practitioners found that making it clear to faculty that they were expected to submit a final report and ongoing data helped with data collection.