The Evolution of Affordable Content Efforts in the Higher Education Environment

Chapter 1 – Introduction to The Evolution of Affordable Content Efforts in the Higher Education Environment

by Kristi Jensen and Shane Nackerud (bios)

Increasing Costs of Higher Education and Textbooks

The escalating costs of higher education and increasing student debt have been well documented over the past decade. Since 2008, state financial support for higher education has continued to decrease across the United States,[1] resulting in a steady increase in tuition and fees.[2]  Financial aid has failed to keep up with these increases,[3] producing more financial pressure for students and their families. In August, 2010, the Wall Street Journal reported that student-loan debt had surpassed credit card debt, and the popular press has consistently reported on the student loan crisis since that time, with Forbes and other financial publications reporting that student loan debt in the U.S. rose to $1.5 trillion in the first quarter of 2018.

In addition to higher student loan debt, tuition, and fees, students are faced with textbooks whose cost has outpaced the rate of inflation by 800–1,000% (depending on the time period examined).

In addition to higher student loan debt, tuition, and fees,  students are faced with textbooks whose cost has outpaced the rate of inflation by 800–1,000% (depending on the time period examined).[4] The Trends in College Pricing 2017 report from the College Board indicates that student budgets should include at least $1,200 for books and supplies at public and private four-year institutions, and at least $1,400 at public two-year institutions (2017, p. 10). In Time to Degree, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center indicates that the average time to degree completion for students at four-year public and private institutions is 5.2 and 4.8 years, respectively (2016, p.8). If students pay $1,200 per year for books and supplies, they have paid $6,000 for these materials by the time they graduate. And if students take out additional student loans to pay for these materials, they spend approximately $1,650 in interest as well (assuming an interest rate of 5.05% and 10 years). Paying $6,000–$7,650 is equivalent to paying for an extra semester of tuition at many four-year public institutions.

In Student Success Upfront, Subiano demonstrates why dollar amounts like the annual cost of textbooks are important to today’s students:

The public conversation about college affordability tends to center on big, scary numbers, like the $50,000 some colleges now charge in tuition, or the $1.5 trillion Americans collectively owe in student loans. But college officials working to improve completion rates know that much smaller sums of money can play an outsize role in student success. The difference between graduating or dropping out could hinge on a student’s ability to come up with just a thousand dollars.

Several student surveys[5] have examined behavior related to textbooks, and demonstrate that students are taking fewer courses, are dropping or withdrawing from courses, and are failing courses because of high textbook costs. All of these outcomes have the potential to negatively impact students’ time to or completion of a degree. The emphasis on student completion rates in higher education has been demonstrated frequently during the last decade.[6] As universities acknowledge that student success is impacted by relatively small dollar amounts and that student behaviors related to course enrollment are affected by expensive textbooks, providing affordable course content programs becomes even more important.

Beyond student success, the high cost of course materials can also have a relatively hidden impact on the ability of college students to afford the basic necessities of their daily lives. In addition to managing course loads and finishing assignments, many students face the stresses of being unable to pay for food, housing, transportation, and tuition. According to a recent report by the California State University system, 41.6% of CSU students reported food insecurity, with 21.6% reporting very low food security[7]—a troublesome statistic that is most likely the reality in other college and university systems nationwide as well. Making students choose between a textbook and food for themselves or their families is an undue burden that affordable content can help alleviate.  Some faculty and staff may think course material costs are a minor concern when compared with the sticker shock of tuition, but providing affordable content to students can often make the difference in helping students meet their basic needs. Affordable content efforts can therefore be framed as a matter of social and economic justice, with some students immediately feeling their impact.[8]

Textbook Selection and Support Models

The selection of textbooks or other course materials has traditionally been made by a single faculty member, a department chair (for some entry-level courses), or a cohort of faculty (for large enrollment courses taught by multiple instructors, for example). Choices are focused on the materials that best convey the subject matter to students, and these choices often reflect strategies that were modeled to faculty during their own higher education experiences. Price may or may not be a consideration when faculty are considering textbooks for a course; the NYPIRGs found that “Twenty-eight percent (28%) [of faculty] reported that they do not typically know the prices of the books they assign” (2008, p. 4). Given attention to textbook costs over the past decade, it seems likely that faculty are now more aware of the issue; they may not, however, know about  the various affordable content options available to them today.

Alternatives to the traditional textbook model have existed on college campuses for a long time.

Alternatives to the traditional textbook model have existed on college campuses for a long time. Some institutions have developed student textbook rental programs, or have provided all course materials for a dramatically reduced fee (some for more than 100 years[9]). Bookstores, like ours at the University of Minnesota, have worked hard to provide students with a range of affordable options including used books, rentals, robust buyback options, discounted digital textbooks, and more. Bookstores, printing services, and local copyright permission centers have produced print course packs as an alternative or in addition to textbooks for a course. Libraries have placed print materials on reserve either as primary or supplemental course materials for decades, and later added digital reserves. Libraries have also begun purchasing multi-user ebooks to replace course textbooks.

In addition to these alternatives, wholesalers and publishers are providing a range of options that further complicate faculty and student choice. Tools like RedShelf, Verba, and Engage provide bookstores and the faculty they serve with the opportunity to institute an “all students purchase” option for a course, with a discounted digital textbook price. (Federal regulations require an opt-out allowance for students when an alternative version of the material is available.) Cengage Unlimited offers students semester-long access to their complete catalog of digital materials for $119.99, with print rentals for $7.99 and the ability to keep six ebooks for up to a year. Faced with so many options, and with the need to calculate which will be best for them both financially and from a learning perspective, choices are often difficult for students.

The use of open educational resources (OERs) has also increased at many institutions. And new strategies and programs have been developed and implemented across campuses—programs that educate faculty about the impact of course material cost on student behavior and learning, provide specific strategies to produce adoptions on campus, and provide support mechanisms that improve faculty experiences as they work to adopt OERs. In addition, librarians, academic technologists, and others have begun to support the adaptation of existing OERs and the publication of new openly licensed textbooks and student-produced works—which can take advantage of multimedia elements, interactive quizzing, and annotation or discussion threads to increase student engagement and enhance learning. Finally, collaborative models across institutions are being developed to solve problems, such as the lack of ancillary materials to accompany OERs.

A majority of these options make use of digital materials, requiring an improved understanding of their impact on students, the integration of a range of tools into campus learning management systems, and the development of new faculty skills for using this content effectively. This increasingly complex course content environment has produced the need for new service models involving collaboration across campus units to educate and support faculty and students.

Why Create The Evolution of Affordable Content in Higher Education: Programs, Case Studies & Examples

A variety of groups and organizations focus on a narrow aspect of affordable content (OERs, open textbooks, all inclusive purchase models, etc.), and many research publications have a singular focus as well (OERs again, or information meant for librarians, for example). Our experience working in this space led us to believe that the path to the greatest possible success involves implementing a wide range of affordable content options … Our experience working in this space led us to believe that the path to the greatest possible success involves implementing a wide range of affordable content options, providing the expertise needed to educate campus constituents about these options, and devising the collaborative service models to support them—with the involvement of libraries, information and academic technology units, teaching and learning entities, bookstores, individual faculty and faculty groups, and administration. Finally, we had concluded that there is no one right way to do this work. Affordable content programs can be formal or informal, can begin with the involvement of one campus unit or faculty member or multiple entities, and can focus on one option or many. Our belief that it was time to represent these broad perspectives and possibilities led to gathering the voices of colleagues from many different institutions and positions on campus and reporting on a variety of programs, case studies, and examples—examples to inspire those new to these efforts and to demonstrate how far we have come with affordable content efforts in higher education in the last decade or more.

Practicing what we preach when it comes to sharing content, we have made all of the chapters of the book available with an CC-BY 4.0 International License. We invite you to dig in and explore the professional practices devised and explained by colleagues across the country, and to consider how you can share your knowledge and expertise on your campus and beyond.

Get started with the sections of the book that most interest you:

  • Individual Courses – examples of the implementation of affordable content in unique ways at a variety of higher education institutions.
  • Students and Affordable Course Content – information and data from a survey of students in affordable content courses at one institution.
  • Library eBook Affordable Content Programs – examples of programs that utilize library-licensed ebooks as affordable course content options.
  • Creating Affordable Content Programs – a range of strategies and efforts, often collaborative, promoting and supporting affordable content at a particular institution and across institutions.
  • Affordable Content Models – details about particular affordable content approaches and strategies including inclusive access, campus-wide textbook rental programs with a student fee, and a bookstore program.
  • Creating and Publishing Openly Licensed/Open Access Content – a variety of topics including Universal Design, collaborative authoring of test bank questions, a unique publishing program including student-authored publications, a networked approach to OER publishing, and lessons learned from adapting an existing open textbook for a course.


Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities. (2017, February 21). Public research Universities to launch unprecedented nationwide collaborative effort to boost number of college graduates. Retrieved from

Booth, Char (2018). Libraries, Information Equity, and Economic Justice. Presented at the CNI Spring 2018 Membership Meeting. San Diego, CA. Retrieved from

Butterfield, R. L. (2018). Building on history: Providing affordable course content at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. In K.L. Jensen & S. Nackerud (Eds.), The Evolution of Affordable Content in Higher Education. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing. Retrieved from

College Board. (2017). Trends in college pricing 2017. Retrieved from

Crutchfield, R. & Maguire, J. (2018, January). Study of Student Basic Needs. Retrieved from

Florida Virtual Campus. (2016, October 7). 2016 student textbook and course materials survey. Retrieved from

Friedman, Z. (2018, June 13). Student loan debt statistics in 2018: A $1.5 trillion crisis. Forbes. Retrieved from

Kingkade, Michael. (2013, January 4) (updated 2017, December 6). College textbook prices increasing faster than tuition and inflation. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Mitchell, M., Leachman, M., & Masterson, K. (2017, August 27). A lost decade in higher education funding: State cuts have driven up tuition and reduced quality. Retrieved from

National Commission on Higher Education Attainment. (2013, January). An open letter to college and University leaders: College completion must be our priority. Retrieved from

New York Public Interest Research Group. (2008, April 8). Sticker shock 101: Faculty opinions about textbook prices, publishers’ tactics, and efforts to rein in textbook prices. Retrieved from

Popken, Ben. (2015, August 6). College textbook prices have risen 1,041 percent since 1977. NBC News. Retrieved from

Seltzer, R. (2017, October 25). Net price keeps creeping up. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Senack, Ethan. (2014, January). Fixing the broken textbook market: How students respond to high textbook costs and demand alternatives. U.S. PIRG Education Fund & the Student PIRGs.

Shapiro, D., Dundar, A., Wakhungu, P.K., Yuan, X., Nathan, A, & Hwang, Y. (2016, September). Time to degree: A national view of the time enrolled and elapsed for associate and bachelor’s degree darners (Signature Report No. 11). Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Retrieved from

State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. (2017). State higher education finance fiscal year 2017. Retrieved from

State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. (2017). Appropriations, tuition, and enrollment, by state [data file]. Retrieved from

Supiano, Beckie. (2018, March 4). Student success upfront: Colleges collaborate to see seniors through to graduation. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Author Bios:

Kristi Jensen is the Program Development Lead for the eLearning Support Initiative at the University of Minnesota Libraries. She co-manages the Libraries’ Partnership for Affordable Content grant program, is working with campus partners (the Center for Educational Innovation, Academic Technology Support Services, and the Disability Resource Center ) to develop a streamlined and highly coordinated Teaching and Learning support model on campus, and works with partner institutions through the Unizin Teaching and Learning group to further Affordable Course Content efforts at the national level.

Shane Nackerud has worked at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities since 1998, first as the Libraries webmaster, then as the Director of Web Development, and currently as Technology Lead for Libraries Initiatives. In his current position Shane is working on finding new ways of integrating open access and library content into courses and curricula, as well as investigating new publishing and content creation models. Shane’s research interests include library use assessment, libraries and e-learning, resource integration, academic publishing, and web design.

  1. Mitchell, Leachman, and Anderson in “A Lost Decade in Higher Education Funding” provide a summary of the decrease in state support for higher education. For more detailed data for each state, see the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association report on State Higher Education Finance Fiscal Year 2017 and “Appropriations, Tuition, and Enrollment, by State” data
  2. See Rick Seltzer’s summary in his article “Net Price Keeps Creeping Up” in Inside Higher Ed from October 25, 2017. Figure 4A (taken from the College Board Trends in College Pricing 2017 Report, p. 13) demonstrates tuition increases across three decades.
  3. The Trends in College Pricing 2017 Report from the College Board indicates that “...between 2012–13 and 2017–18, increases in grant aid and tax credits and deductions for full-time students covered only about 7% of the $730 (in 2017 dollars) increase in published tuition and fees at public four-year institutions and about two-thirds of the $3,770 increase in published tuition and fees at private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities. For public two-year college students, the $200 increase in tuition and fees over these five years was accompanied by a $90 decline in average grant aid and tax benefits.” (2017, p. 8)
  4. See “College Textbook Prices Have Risen 1,041 Percent Since 1977” from NBC News (2015) and “College Textbook Prices Increasing Faster Than Tuition and Inflation” from the Huffington Post (2013, updated 2017).
  5. See The Florida Virtual Campus 2016 Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey and Fixing the Broken Textbook Market from the Student Public Interest Research Group.
  6. See the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities announcement from February 2018 about a new degree completion and student success project, and An Open Letter to College and University Leaders: College Completion Must Be Our Priority from the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment (January 23, 2013).
  7. See the California State University Basic Needs Initiative’s Study of Student Basic Needs.
  8. For more information on libraries' possible roles in regards to economic justice, see Char Booth's excellent CNI Spring 2018 Membership Meeting presentation "Libraries, Information Equity, and Economic Justice."
  9. The University of Wisconsin Stout began their textbook rental program in 1910.


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The Evolution of Affordable Content Efforts in the Higher Education Environment: Programs, Case Studies, and Examples Copyright © 2018 by Kristi Jensen and Shane Nackerud, selection and editorial material (individual chapters, the contributors) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.