Posted: Wednesday, September 28, 2016 12:00 am
By John Newsom

As textbook prices soar, UNCG looks for free alternatives

On the first day of her families and close relationships class last spring, UNC-Greensboro professor Heather Helms got something from her students she had never received before:

A round of applause.

That’s because Helms had told her 220 students that they didn’t have to buy the usual textbook — a 592-page tome that weighs 21/2 pounds and retails for $275.95.

“That doesn’t happen a lot,” Helms said. “Getting applause like that on the first day of class — that was a first.”

As college textbook prices continue to climb, Helms is among a handful of UNCG professors working on ways to help cash-strapped students. Specifically, they’re looking for ways to replace high-priced textbooks with free or low-cost online resources.

“There’s not much I can do about how much their tuition costs, and I can’t do anything about the student fees,” said Beth Bernhardt, an assistant dean of university libraries who’s coordinating the alternative textbook initiative at UNCG. “But there is something I can do about the textbook costs because there are other options out there.”

Over the past decade, textbook prices have increased 88 percent, according to recent federal government data. That’s faster than inflation — faster even than college tuition. The College Board estimates that students at public four-year colleges like UNCG spend about $1,300 per year on textbooks and class supplies.

Students have a few options to save money on books. They can buy used books or shop for deals online. Sometimes, they simply go without books.

Maria Gomez-Ibarra, a sophomore pre-nursing major from Hickory, said she sometimes saves money by renting a book. The problem: She can’t write in it, and she has to return the book at the end of the semester.

Sometimes, though, there’s no getting around buying a book. Gomez-Ibarra said some of her professors give online quizzes that require students to have an access code. To get the code, students have to buy the book.

Last spring, Gomez-Ibarra spent just $300 on textbooks.

“But if you’re taking three sciences, that’s at least $1,000,” she said.

To help students save money on books, UNCG last year became the first North Carolina university to join the Open Textbook Network. The University of Minnesota is leading this new effort to connect universities to free, high-quality academic textbooks that have been vetted by college professors.

Also, as part of a campus pilot project in 2015, UNCG’s libraries and the provost’s office gave $1,000 stipends to 10 professors so they could find alternatives to traditional textbooks.

This year, UNCG and East Carolina University are sharing a two-year, $184,000 grant from the State Library of North Carolina. The grant will expand efforts to find free or low-cost textbook substitutes. Barnhardt said another 16 UNCG professors will receive grants in the spring.

In that first year of UNCG’s pilot program, Barnhardt said, students saved an estimated $214,000 on books.

UNCG professors are keenly aware of the high cost of textbooks. When Carrie Wachter Morris took advanced counseling theories during her doctoral studies at UNCG, she remembers spending several hundred dollars on books.

When she started teaching the course a year ago, she heard about UNCG’s new effort to find cheaper textbook options and signed up for the pilot program.

“I’m all about trying to save students money while trying to maximize their learning opportunities,” said Morris, an associate professor of counseling education.

Morris said she assigned readings from a variety of sources: professional websites, book chapters from open-access textbooks and academic journals that the library subscribes to.

The result: Each of her grad students saved about $400 on books.

“It was a small investment that translated into pretty significant cost savings for my students,” Morris said.

Helms, an associate professor in UNCG’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies, tried a similar approach in her families and close relationships class.

She used a chapter from the $275 textbook because it contained some good basic definitions. She steered her students to professional websites that had articles and blog posts that explained new research. The U.S. Census Bureau website was a great source of free data. Clips from documentaries were free online, too.

Helms said this new approach taught her students how to find and evaluate online data. (“A lot of it’s garbage; you have to be able to vet it,” Helms said.) In student reviews of the class, several said they enjoyed the assignments.

“To have students comment on how much they liked the readings is very unusual,” Helms said.

Arianne Ouedraogo, a sophomore from Greensboro, took Helms’s class last spring. She said she was a little skeptical of a professor that didn’t assign a textbook. But she found that she — and her bank account — benefited.

Last spring, when Ouedraogo took Helms’s class, she spent about $200 on books for all her other classes. This fall, her textbook bill topped $400.

“Now I’m a business major, and everything requires textbooks,” she said. “I didn’t know how cheap I had it before.”

Contact John Newsom at (336) 373-7312 and follow @JohnNewsomNR on Twitter.