Affordable Content Models

Chapter 19 – Building on History: Providing Affordable Course Content at the University of Wisconsin-Stout

Robert L. Butterfield

by Robert L. Butterfield, University of Wisconsin-Stout (bio)


The University of Wisconsin-Stout is one of the thirteen four-year campuses of the University of Wisconsin System. Founded by Senator James Huff Stout in 1891 as the Stout Manual Training School, Stout serves approximately 9,500 students studying in 48 undergraduate and 23 graduate degree programs (University of Wisconsin-Stout, 2017). Programs at Stout range from a large Art and Design program to video game design, vocational rehabilitation, engineering, hospitality and tourism, and education.

Innovation is a key characteristic of the Stout community. The university’s mission and method drive a desire to provide an education that is “hands on, minds on.” A great example of this is Stout’s designation as “Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University” in 2007 (University of Wisconsin-Stout, 2017). As a polytechnic, Stout offers its students a combination of applied learning coupled with a strong liberal arts education. The applied learning approach is supported by an environment that provides more lab spaces than classroom spaces.

Another way Stout differs from a traditional higher education campus is that it is a “laptop” campus. Every on-campus undergraduate student is issued a laptop, preloaded with the software students will need to pursue their studies. Each laptop is refreshed every two years, and a student can purchase the computer upon graduation.

Innovation, however, does not come without preparation. UW-Stout has dedicated itself to a robust practice of strategic institutional planning, which is practiced from the bottom up and the top down. Stout strengthens itself by encouraging input from all stakeholders, whether they be external, faculty, staff, or students. The culmination of this dedication to successful planning resulted in the university being the first higher-education institution to be awarded the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 2001.

One of the strongest and most unique innovations at Stout, however, is a program created specifically to serve students: the UW-Stout Textbook Affordability Program. Implemented at the university’s founding, it has endured in one way, shape, or form for well over one hundred years. This chapter provides an overview of Stout’s historic textbook rental program, describes the development of a digital resources program to augment the print rental system, discusses the inclusion of the university’s open educational resource (OER) program, and, finally, provides insight into how Stout has melded these elements into a comprehensive affordability program.

The Textbook Rental Program

From the school’s inception, Stout’s founding father, James Huff Stout, understood the importance of affordability. He committed not just to providing an opportunity for young people to earn an education, but to their success afterward. This is very much in evidence in his plans for the Stout Manual Training School:

“I will place upon the school grounds, in a place designated by the Board of Education, a building of proper kind and size, furnished with all of the equipment necessary for the instruction of classes of boys and girls in the subjects included in the first year in a course of manual training. I will also pay the salaries of the necessary teachers, the cost of all necessary materials and supplies, and all of the contingent expenses for three terms, or for a time equivalent to three school terms, except such a part thereof as shall be paid by five hundred dollars, which is to be provided by the Board of Education.” (UW-Stout, 2017)

This approach continues to guide Stout’s approach to affordability.

The textbook rental program was established in 1910, when approximately 25 textbooks titles covered the entire curriculum and the average cost per book was about $1.24 (Unknown, 1910). Funds to support the purchase of textbooks were provided through the library collection budget until, in the 1960s, student fees began to be collected for purchasing textbooks. In 1977, a full-time coordinator was hired to lead the library’s Rental Resource Service (Jax, 1977), the predecessor of the Instructional Resources Service (IRS) now operating the campus affordability program.

This approach has created a unique relationship between Stout and its bookstore. The provision of curricular content remains an institutional responsibility, while the college store, still an important part of the campus community, acts as a “spirit” store and provides other essentials such as school supplies, technology peripherals, and licensed merchandise.

IRS, a unit of the University Library, has one purpose: ensuring the affordability of curricular content. IRS provides most of the curricular content for both undergraduate and graduate students, whether they are taking courses on campus or at a distance.

This is truly a student program. All fees relating to textbooks must be approved by the Stout Student Association, and the IRS director must regularly report back to the students on the state of the budget. Students can directly question how their money is being spent and ask questions regarding curricular content, and IRS continually seeks and accepts student feedback on how to improve service and add value. This student/advocate relationship is vital to the program.

The Textbook Affordability Program at Stout is completely funded by the student fee—currently $17.18 per credit for undergraduates, or about $412.32 per year. This amount is based solely on the number of credits taken, not on the number or price of resources assigned to a course, and provides students access to about $1,500 worth of content per year, including print textbook rentals, digital textbooks, access codes for adaptive learning platforms, and many other types of content.

This is truly a student program. All fees relating to textbooks must be approved by the Stout Student Association, and the IRS director must regularly report back to the students on the state of the budget. Students can directly question how their money is being spent and ask questions regarding curricular content, and IRS continually seeks and accepts student feedback on how to improve service and add value. This student/advocate relationship is vital to the program.

IRS staff consists of a director, who is also the assistant library director, a digital resources specialist, an acquisitions specialist, and a part-time assistant who works on affordability projects. Because it is a student program, students have a big part in operating the unit. The staff includes fifteen student workers to sustain operations, along with many volunteers who provide valuable assistance in book check-out and returns during peak seasons.

Staff development and cross-training are crucial. The small IRS staff not only purchases and prepares content, but provides a range of related services to students and faculty—operating, for example, the campus digital resources program and the OER program (described below), conducting e-textbook familiarization training for students and faculty, providing digital resource helpdesk support, and assisting with several functions associated with accessibility. Ninety-two cents of every dollar collected from the student fees goes into purchasing content.

Several challenges in recent years have limited the effectiveness of print rental as the lone means of providing a comprehensive affordability program. First, the continual increase in the cost of print textbooks has made a print rental system difficult to sustain. Rising costs for content mean having to constantly consider fee increases. Secondly, the used book market that has traditionally provided a means to mitigate cost is not as vibrant as it once was. Publishers are doing all they can to limit the number of books available in this market, and the number of rental programs has increased exponentially, creating more demand on the stunted market. These programs range from campus-operated programs like Stout’s to those run by for-profit companies selling or renting used books directly to students. The competition for content, often coupled with the need to purchase single copies of books from a variety of sellers in order to collect enough inventory, makes acquisitions slow and unwieldy and further complicates the process of cost mitigation.

Also complicating the effectiveness of the print-only rental system is the continuing battle surrounding print versus digital. Publishers have made no secret of their desire to move from print to digital. Providing new options for delivering and interacting with content, digital resources are also challenging print in the classroom, with many faculty members at Stout wanting this wider variety of tools. In addition, because there is no investment in physical inventory, digital resources are much easier to replace, and negate the need for the long adoption periods traditionally used with print textbooks to reduce cost.

This cultural shift from print to digital content has raised many questions about whether the Stout rental program can survive in the Digital Age, including: How can we increase the variety of resources available in the print rental program? How will students and faculty feel about a shift from print to digital? Can digital be incorporated as part of the rental program? If so, can the program remain cost-effective? These questions were answered with the campus digital resources program, named the University Textbook Transition (UTexT) Program.

The Digital Resources Program

Prior to the beginning of each fall term, Stout hosts an engagement session for all faculty, staff, and students. It is a vital part of the strategic planning process, and informs the direction of the strategic goals for the following year. In 2011, faculty and staff raised an issue that would have great impact on the campus textbook affordability program: they pointed to the growing need to provide a wider range of tools to support classroom instruction. This created the impetus over the next year for the creation of the Stout digital resources program.

The chancellor charged IRS with researching and developing a means for adding digital options to the existing textbook program, starting with a pilot program introducing digital materials into a limited number of courses. This pilot was intended to explore the best way to provide a wider range of content in support of the Stout curriculum and, at the same time, remain true to the Stout tradition of providing students with very low-cost curricular resources. IRS was also tasked with creating a whitepaper exploring the rationale for moving to digital resources and laying the foundation for the early stages of the program. The results of these early steps became the UTexT Program.

The first step in meeting this charge was the creation of the Digital Resources Committee, which focused on providing an effective support system for adopting, circulating, acquiring, and maintaining digital resources. This support system was deemed essential in providing both students and faculty with a higher level of comfort and confidence in using the new resources.

The committee included the associate provost, the chief information officer, the learning technology services director, the purchasing coordinator, the Dean of Students, the director of Stout Online, the Disability Services Coordinator, the Library Director, the Bursar, the Registrar, faculty representatives from all colleges, student senate representatives, and IRS staff members. They collaborated to develop the initial pilot, and became an indispensable team that continues to contribute to program success. In 2015, they also provided the model for a task force to support a sustainable OER program.

The pilot was based loosely on the Internet2/Courseload/McGraw-Hill pilot conducted earlier in the spring 2012 term with five large universities (Howell, 2012). Content was limited to one digital textbook, but no restrictions were placed on the choice of publisher. Stout also partnered with a digital reader platform that was accessed directly through the campus learning management system. Five faculty members volunteered to participate, and the pilot encompassed digital resources being used in eight sections of five different courses containing 189 students.

The Digital Resources Committee established a set of enduring goals meant to guide the program:

  1. To enhance student learning using emerging technologies;
  2. To utilize innovations in technology to further the Stout polytechnic mission;
  3. To provide a program that is efficient and cost-effective;
  4. To make it possible for instructors to design and modify required content;
  5. To provide an adaptable program that would continue to meet course content requirements well into the future; and
  6. To be able to meet the needs and expectations of students exposed to advanced learning technologies in the K-12 environment. (Butterfield & Thomason, 2012)

The pilot was a success and has been duplicated in succeeding terms, with growth in digital content continuing at a rate of 15% to 25% per semester. As of the fall 2017 term, digital resources account for about 50% of all curricular content used at UW-Stout. This success, however, did not come without growing pains.

Obstacles in the Introduction of Digital Resources

The first obstacle to introducing digital resources involved navigating a stakeholder culture that was very grounded in print. It was necessary from the beginning to speak to the concern of “I just prefer print.” The voluntary nature of the digital program helped assuage faculty concerns, and providing exceptional support for the early faculty adopters was key. Faculty then became instrumental for spreading the word to colleagues and contributed to the program’s rapid growth.

The first obstacle to introducing digital resources involved navigating a stakeholder culture that was very grounded in print. It was necessary from the beginning to speak to the concern of “I just prefer print.”

Faculty also believed at first that students needed permanent access to the digital materials. The long history of the textbook rental program indicated, however, that in most cases students are willing to relinquish their textbooks as soon as they are done with them. This is supported by the success of rental programs like Stout’s that circulate textbooks in a quasi-library fashion, and by textbook buyback programs at college bookstores across the country. To alleviate faculty concerns, procedures have been established through vendors and publishers to offer long-term access or print-on-demand options, but at Stout these are rarely requested.

Five years of using digital course materials at Stout has also helped change the perceptions of students, who now seem much more comfortable with digital resources. Some still express a desire for a print resource, but the number has declined drastically from the early days of the program, and these students are assisted on a case-by-case basis.

At the start of the program, both students and faculty often lacked the skills or confidence to recognize the full potential and inherent qualities separating digital resources from their print counterparts. IRS has worked closely with the Learning Technology Service and the Nakatani Teaching and Learning Center to guide faculty in effectively using digital resources, and students can rely on a host of online, face-to-face, and classroom training opportunities to assure they are comfortable using the assigned resources.

The successful implementation of digital has also been hindered by publishers themselves, many of whom still adhere to hold-over policies from the print era. Restrictive digital rights management, frequent edition changes, the bundling of ebooks with additional premium content, and the restriction of content access to short (usually 180-day) durations of time have discouraged faculty members from adopting digital resources. Publishers have also been reluctant to offer disaggregated content, restricting ability of faculty to customize content to meet their course objectives.

Pricing also continues to be an issue. The need to purchase a copy of each digital resource for every individual in every class, rather than being able to procure a single print book that can be circulated, has resulted in a higher cost structure in a system like Stout’s, especially in large lecture-type courses. Publishers also tended to cling to the older pricing models used for print textbooks.

The increase in access codes for adaptive learning platforms and publisher homework solutions has been an additional obstacle to digital implementation. Students were often charged additional lab or technology fees, or required to purchase these items out-of-pocket. In 2013, Stout’s IRS was asked to provide feedback on the possibility of incorporating these materials. It was determined that IRS would purchase the codes as part of the rental program, using bulk purchasing and negotiation to assure the lowest cost. This allowed many required course fees for this material to be eliminated.

The final obstacle to full digital implementation has been accessibility. Publishers are doing a better job of providing accessible content and products, but there is still a long way to go. Stout has developed a team approach, using the resources of IRS, Learning Technology Services, Stout Online, the University Library, and the Disability Services Office to assist in providing necessary accommodations and doing everything possible to assure day-one content access for all students and faculty. Ideally, publishers would provide accessible content, and accommodations would not be necessary.

While the transition to digital at Stout has not always been easy, it has proceeded successfully despite the obstacles, providing access to a much wider range of tools for the classroom and opening more avenues to learning, and doing so with only a moderate increase to student fees. It has also provided the groundwork for the initial phases of the new OER program that promises to help sustain the Stout Affordable Textbook Program.

The Open Educational Resources Program

Finding new ways to mitigate cost and provide affordable content requires constant effort, along with thrift, efficiency, aggressive negotiation, and the willingness to consider every available opportunity. One avenue to savings that requires very little debate, however, is a free textbook.

The open educational resource (OER) movement has provided a unique and valuable means for Stout to add quality, low-cost materials to its content arsenal. These resources not only provide low-cost or free materials to select courses, but allow savings to be realized across the program as they are shifted to mitigate the cost of commercial resources. Stout’s OER effort was added to the Instructional Resources Service in 2015.

The Stout Open for Learning and Value in Education (SOLVE) Program began with a grant proposal in August, 2015, requesting modest funding from the University of Wisconsin System to support the initial phase of the SOLVE Program with the intention of “providing innovative and cost-effective educational resources that support faculty academic freedom and advance student learning” (Butterfield & Johnson-Schmitz, 2016a).

The grant provided about $14,000 to launch the SOLVE Program, covering the initial steps of joining the Open Textbook Network, providing an OER workshop for faculty and staff, giving incentives to faculty to review an open textbook, and incentivizing adoption of an OER in four classes. This initial phase resulted in over $10,000 in savings in the four pilot courses. (Butterfield & Johnson-Schmitz, Textbooks, 2016b)

Our previous work on the Digital Resources Program saved us a great deal of time and effort when establishing the OER program, since we had an approach in place to managing and supporting digital content. One of our most effective approaches was to create an OER task force; members provide direct support in discoverability, technology, accessibility, and usability, and serve as the primary conduit between users and content.

The Instructional Resources team is the glue that binds the program together. Members are responsible for all operational aspects of the program, for assuring that the necessary collaborations occur to support the curriculum, for educating and communicating with all stakeholders, and for advocating for OERs at UW-Stout. This campus group is unique in that its main responsibility is to advocate for the lowest cost content possible for the students.

The initial gains of the SOLVE Program have been modest. The adoption of OERs has continued on a voluntary basis, but we have not yet initiated a formal recruitment process. Even without active recruitment, however, the SOLVE Program has resulted in almost $100,000 in savings since the summer term of 2016, illustrating how one huge benefit of free content is that even small efforts can result in significant savings.

The next phase of the program is slated to begin in 2018, with more individuals being trained to support, advocate for, and promote OERs at Stout. It isn’t enough to simply provide open resources. It is necessary, in addition, to invest in opportunities to ensure a sustainable program.

One approach will be to work more closely with students, increasing their awareness and encouraging them to advocate for the adoption of OERs. Their voices are critical in changing perceptions and developing a campus-wide culture of affordability. Their stories of being helped by affordability efforts have much more impact than explanations of dollars saved.

The OER movement is alive in Wisconsin and gaining strength, but more is needed to help sustain our affordable content efforts. OER creation and adaptation, especially, require expertise and resources that smaller campuses may not be able to sustain on their own. Small and large campuses alike need to work in concert to assure that OERs remain a viable and sustainable. That is why IRS is becoming a vocal advocate outside of UW-Stout, working to forge collaborations with fellow system schools, technical schools, two-year campuses, and high schools to find ways to work together and lighten the load. Sharing both the work and the acquired knowledge is critical to the OER movement.

We have no doubt that this approach will be as successful for OERs as it has been for the digital program. Providing exceptional support and collaboration, involving students, and advocating for OERs on and off campus will carry the day. We have set a goal of saving students $1 million dollars by the year 2020.

The Comprehensive Affordability Program

The real success of the Stout affordability approach is a result not of one program, but of the three combined. Blending the textbook rental, digital resource, and OER programs has resulted in an affordability triangle that limits cost and greatly expands the number of resources available for students and faculty. Affordability, however, does not come easily, and we’ve found that many strategies are necessary to assure that costs are kept low:


Because this program is entirely student-funded, communication with the students is critical. Stout’s IRS operates under the assumption that the student is the “boss.” Students must approve any fee increases. so it is imperative to keep them informed and part of the process. Every effort is taken to keep student government apprised of IRS operations and to solicit feedback for program improvement.

It is equally important to communicate with administrators, keeping them up-to-date on the importance of affordability in recruiting and retaining students. This program would not be successful without the strong support of the Stout administration.


Assertive negotiation with publishers and vendors is also a critical aspect of mitigating costs in the program. We consider them partners and not antagonists in the quest for affordability. Their goal is to make money, while the Stout program’s goal is to provide the lowest possible cost for content to the students. These views are not mutually exclusive. Stout’s approach has been to recognize this dynamic and negotiate with the understanding that both parties are looking for the best deal. Effort is placed on finding the best middle ground and working toward success for both sides.


In affordability efforts, collaboration takes many forms. Sometimes it is as straightforward as using collaborative purchasing to lower cost and increase access. The University Library and IRS have found several ways to split the cost for resources while advancing both ideals. Collaboration is also a means to share labor and expertise between campus units and external stakeholders. IRS, Learning Technology Service, the Nakatani Teaching and Learning Center, Stout Online, and Disability Services have all collaborated to solve problems and increase service and access.

Find Affordability Wherever it Lives

This is the “all other” category in providing affordable content. We use every possible effort to limit cost: from constantly reviewing workflows for maximum efficiency to requesting free shipping with every order. Thrift is a huge asset in making an affordability program sustainable. With overhead at a minimum and a staff actively searching for every way to limit cost, Stout is very proud of being able to commit over 90% of every dollar collected from the students toward purchasing content. We have also taken the step of combining IRS and the library collection development department, further concentrating our efforts to expand access and reduce cost for both areas.

Take Your Time, Make a Plan, Find Your Superheroes

Pinching pennies and making smart business decisions, however, are not the only ways to ensure sustainable affordability; many intangible elements also contribute. One question often asked about the Stout Affordability Program is whether it “is scalable and exportable?” The answer is a definite “yes.” Comprehensive affordability is a marathon, not a sprint. Stout’s program has been saving students money for over a century, and has at its core a holistic, flexible approach that allows the use of all possible tools.

Not every adventure begins with a map, but all successful ones begin with a plan. This is true in building an affordability program. As a Baldrige award winner, UW-Stout remains invested in planning strategically for success—a tradition that helps make the affordability program possible. Strategic planning provides a scaffold for guiding and assessing operations. It is an active process that allows the program’s structure to adjust, grow, and prosper, and provides a map with many possible routes to success rather than one, single static picture.

We have also learned that growth needs to be incremental. Providing affordable content is costly, and requires patience. Rapidly initiating a program effective for all students would require a large amount of money. Growth should be managed so that undue burden is not placed on support elements or on students. It has taken Stout a long time to develop its program, and it is unlikely that our comprehensive and sustainable approach would have been as successful if growth had been too rapid. It comes down to finding a starting point and using that to build a system that will support future growth.

Stout has also been cautious of “putting all its eggs in one basket.” In their haste to provide an affordable solution, many institutions decide to adopt just one approach. Rapid adoption of rental models, “all inclusive” models, or 100% open programs is initiated to provide quick relief. We have found that more than one solution is often necessary to provide a comprehensive and flexible program that allows both growth and flexibility and that meets the needs of faculty and students. Stout has elected to adopt many approaches to reduce student cost, which allows the program to continue to reimagine itself when tested by change.

Building a program also requires superheroes—an individual or group with responsibility for the program. The superhero not only drives day-to-day functions, but provides enthusiasm and commitment. Our superheroes push our program forward even when some may waiver and want to give up; they provide the spark to attack problems and find inventive solutions for limiting or eliminating cost. IRS staff see affordability as a state of mind. They are true advocates for the students, believing that to fail the program is to fail the people they serve.

Finally, it is essential to always, always remember who an affordability program is for. The Stout program does not exist to be a recruiting tool (although it is) or a means of retention (although it is). It exists to save each Stout student more than $4,000 during an average four-year academic career. This is the ultimate indicator of success.


The University of Wisconsin-Stout has been an advocate of textbook affordability for more than a century, with its textbook rental program beginning in 1910. Crucial to the program’s success has been its ability to adapt, as demonstrated in our move to add digital resources, access codes, and other materials to the “rental” system circa 2012. Open educational resources have also been added to the Stout affordability arsenal to provide quality content while controlling cost. These efforts have culminated in a comprehensive affordability program administered by the institution and providing a variety of quality content in support of Stout’s curriculum. The effectiveness of this program comes from a staff dedicated to finding any way to keep cost low, a supportive administration, and the fact that this is completely a student program.


Affordability in higher education is not a simple problem to define. According to one expert, “college affordability is not so simple as identifying what the sticker price of a college education is, how much money people have available to pay for it, and the amount of financial aid students and families qualify for to help defray the cost. How much anyone can afford to pay depends on the value of what they are purchasing” (Baum, 2017). Affordability encompasses a long list of contributing factors, of which textbook affordability seems a relatively small problem. Why, then, has UW-Stout dedicated the resources and time to this issue?

The answer is that textbook affordability can give direct and significant support to the student. Saving on textbooks may seem small when viewed against the rising cost of tuition and higher education costs. When a program like Stout’s can save a student upward of $4,000 over his or her academic career, however, it begins to have real impact on that student’s ability to complete a degree. These dollars can then be repurposed for other living needs that do not disappear when a person is attending college, like food, transportation, and clothing. It also nurtures a culture of equity and affordability that informs an institutional view in supporting students across campus.

The Stout textbook affordability program is unique, yet not exceptional. Its success does not come from a single, catch-all approach to reducing cost, but from a systematic method that searches for affordability “wherever it lives.” This method thrives because it is supported by a group of individuals dedicated to textbook affordability and supported by administration. The most important element to success, however, is that this program belongs to the students. This program has served the Stout students for a century and, with innovation and hard work, it is sure to serve them for decades to come.


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Butterfield, R., & Johnson-Schmitz, H. (2016a). Innovation program project report. University of Wisconsin system. Retrieved from—Butterfield,-B.—SOLVE.pdf

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Butterfield, R., & Thomason, M. (2012). E-Textbooks: A proposal to inspire innovative practices in textbook delivery. Menomonie: Instructional Resources Service.

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Jax, J. (1977). MRS annual report. Menomonie: University of Wisconsin-Stout.

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Author Bio:

Robert Butterfield has been the Director of Instructional Resources for the University of Wisconsin-Stout for the last six years. Instructional Resources is responsible for operating the campus textbook rental, access code, digital resource, and open educational resource programs for UW-Stout. These programs are university operated and completely funded by student fees. He has over 30 years of business, operational, and leadership experience in the military, retail and academic library realms. Bob is passionate about providing quality, affordable learning materials to all students.